I planned to post about buying five Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason novels Apple had on sale for $2.99 each. I read lots of those in grade school and have loved courtroom dramas ever since. But that will wait for another Mystery Monday, because I’ve got something better today.
A bit after 10 last night; been watching stuff on Hulu and was ready to pack it in. The main screen pushing a movie, Palm Springs. Stars Adam Samberg, to me an Idiot Clown, so first impression this is Hulu’s Just Go With It. (No thanks!) Lucky for me, news feed headlines I’d seen suggested otherwise.
I’m so glad I decided to watch the trailer. And then the whole movie!
Because the trailer confirmed what the headlines I’d read implied: This is a take on one of my favorite movies of all time: Groundhog Day.
After watching the trailer, despite intending to call it a night, I had to watch the film. (It’s only 90 minutes long; as it should be for a romcom.) I’m never going to like Adam Samberg much, but I thoroughly enjoyed this film.
It’s not the classic Groundhog Day is, nor even just a deepish parable (in some ways, it’s cutely anti-parable). But it is a really clever, really funny, romantic comedy that takes the Groundhog Day idea to a new level.
That it’s a romcom means it has humor and two romantic leads who meet cute, have a fling thing, encounter difficulties, solve them, and ultimately end up together. Or something like that.
That it’s a take on Groundhog Day means repeating the same day and over forever until the victim escapes. Canonically, said escape involves learning a Valuable Life Lesson.
In this case it involves studying and learning quantum physics.
I’ll explain, but spoilers follow (especially in the later part of the post).
In Groundhog Day, the main character (Bill Murray as weatherman Phil Connors) loops the same day over and over. The movie implies he remains in that loop for many years worth of days, perhaps decades (or more).
In Palm Springs both leads are stuck. This opens the plot to the possibilities involving two romantic characters endlessly repeating a day where nothing they do matters (rather than just lonely Phil learning to grow up).
So that’s one new level to the idea, but this movie takes it a step further by adding a third stuck party. One who is seriously pissed about it — so pissed they occasionally murder the stuck character responsible in revenge.
I found the setup delightful, and felt the writing steps up to the plate to match it. The movie kinda sparkles. It helps, I think, that it’s a grudging liking of two trapped people that grows into love. I think it would play worse with the traditional meet-love-lose-restore romcom pattern.
What’s ironic is that the story, by newbie Andy Siara, originally had no science fiction element. It was intended more along the lines of Leaving Las Vegas (a very powerful very hard to watch drama). It was only later developed into a take on Groundhog Day.
It’s also the first time out for director Max Barbakow. (Neither the director nor the writer have Wiki pages, yet.)
It’s not all that unusual for first-timers to deliver such impressive gems. (I even see it in baseball.) Part, no doubt, is youthful enthusiasm and not having had “impossible” ideas beaten out yet — youth lacks cynicism and doubt. Some is the focus of doing well on their First Big Chance. (There can also be what I call doing a Boston — those long-honed risen cream ideas.)
Whatever the case, this seems one of those times. (Sadly, they can have the effect of condemning to high expectations.)
The day that repeats is the day of a wedding held at a Palm Springs hotel.
Romantic lead A: Nyles (Adam Samberg), the disaffected boyfriend of bridesmaid Misty (Meredith Hagner). Romantic lead B: Sarah Wilder (Cristin Milioti), disaffected Maid-of-Honor and black sheep sister to the bride, Tala Anne (Camila Mendes).
One big difference from Groundhog Day is that we learn Nyles has been stuck in this day for a long time. A key conflict comes when Sarah learns Nyles has seduced her many times before she is caught in the loop. In fact, he has perfected an impromptu rescue speech that takes her off the hook when she is unexpectedly called upon to toast her sister.
(In retrospect, something of a refrigerator moment. What sister Maid-of-Honor doesn’t realize she’ll be called upon for a speech? Sarah is presented as a seriously disaffected black-sheep family disappointment, so it’s possible she’s that out of touch, but then one has to wonder why she’s the Maid-of-Honor. On the other hand, we learn that Sarah has good reason to be very distracted that day.)
It’s one of the times Nyles sweeps in with his perfect wedding speech (to the astonishment of his girlfriend who never heard him so eloquent), that Sarah gets trapped. They’ve wandered away from the party out to the desert for sex. But, while taking his clothes off, Nyles is shot in the back with an arrow.
Oddly, he seems to know who shot him — someone named Roy.
Nyles runs off into the desert until another arrow in the upper leg forces him to hide. We see a shadowy figure with a bow enter a cave trying to follow Nyles. A strange red-yellow light emanates from this cave. After a pause, Nyles follows, stumbling into the same cave.
Inside the cave, filled with weird red light, we watch Nyles crawl deeper. Sarah appears at the mouth of the cave. She calls out to him. He yells back for her not to follow. He keeps yelling don’t come in while some force grabs him and pulls him forward out of our sight.
Sarah slowly walks forward… further… further… and then she, too, is dragged, standing upright, into the weird red light and out of our sight.
The day repeats, now for them both. They wake up, every time, the morning of the wedding just as they had.
[Either going into the cave again, as Nyles did when arrow-shot, or just falling asleep, resets the day. The cave, along with suicide or murder, offer ways to reset early.]
Sarah goes through her own discovery period, similar to Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. But she soon sees Nyles and accosts him (rather aggressively — it’s a cute scene). This is part of what makes the movie sparkle. As viewers, we’re already up on the basic concept, so Nyles bringing Sarah up to speed quickly moves things along.
It gives the movie a much different structure despite using the same magical looping-day foundation. There is Nyles, in the loop a long time and utterly surrendered to it. In contrast, Sarah is new to it, so we experience her attempts to escape through suicide, driving far away, etc (while Nyles follows tolerantly along).
Once she accepts things, they begin to have fun, like children. They can do literally anything they want because the slate is always wiped clean. Nyles, for instance, has made several unsuccessful attempts to seduce the bride.
The third party stuck with them is Roy (J.K. Simmons). He was a guest at the party that Nyles partied with one time. They stole some drugs, got high and drunk, and when Roy exclaimed how it was a perfect night he never wanted to end,… Nyles told him about the cave.
Roy is not happy. He lives in Irvine, which is about 90 miles away from Palm Springs (he drove out to the wedding). He wakes up in his own bed. Sometimes he drives back out to Palm Springs to torture-murder Nyles for revenge. Nyles, at this point, is fatalistic about it.
Roy’s dilemma is that he has a beautiful wife who loves him, three young kids, and a nice house. It’s not a bad day to endless repeat. But he’ll never see his kids grow up.
It’s all fun and games until it isn’t. An incident with Roy leads to Nyles confessing to Sarah that he’d seduced her many times before the time she entered the cave. She immediately commits suicide to get away from him.
Thus begins their breakup phase. From his point of view, she’s just gone. It turns out she didn’t sleep in her room the night before, so he doesn’t find her in her room that morning. (He later finds out what bed she woke up in: the bridegroom’s!)
What he doesn’t know is that she’s decided to teach herself quantum physics in order to find a way out of the loop. This involves a montage of her, sitting in a local cafe she drives to each morning, seeking out online classes and working her way up to the point some scientist is saying (over Skype) ‘you clearly don’t need my help anymore.’
Keeping in mind this is a fantasy story, the quantum physics is pure hand-waving, and blowing oneself up with C4 is probably the least quantum solution I’ve seen, but it fits in with the movie perfectly.
I’ll let you see the ending for yourself. I left out some good bits.
There is a credits cookie. It follows the Marvel pattern of coming early, and there is just the one scene.
On my morning walk, thinking about this post, I wondered if I could connect my issues with idiot clown characters to how people of color and non-cis orientation perceive a lack of self representation.
The issue is rarely, or never, seeing characters with traits one find key in self identity. I can’t separate whether it’s a lack of faith in identity politics or just being the current social default white male, but I’ve had a hard time truly appreciating how it feels to not be represented in stories.
Which makes it easy for me to question whether that’s important. I hear people say it is, but I don’t experience it, so I can’t evaluate its priority.
Except maybe I can in a perception of a lack of representation of highly intelligent rational characters. (I suppose they’re seen as too boring.) Something to think about, anyway.
As a romcom, I give Palm Springs a (soft) Wow! rating. (Soft because it’s clever but a bit shallow.) Judging it overall as a film that lightness consigns it to an Ah! (but a solid one).
Definite thumbs up from me! Very worth seeing (especially if you like Groundhog Day).
Stay safe, my friends! Wear your masks — COVID-19 is airborne!