Hulu's 'Palm Springs' puts Andy Samberg's likability to good use — with a twist

As someone who's been married for 20 years, I can attest that the pleasures of a long-term relationship include the way love makes even tedium a joy.
Image: Cristin Milioti, Andy Samberg
Sarah (Cristin Milioti) and Nyles (Andy Samberg) are stuck in "Palm Springs."Jessica Perez / Hulu
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By Noah Berlatsky, cultural critic

Toward the beginning of the new Hulu film "Palm Springs," Sarah (Cristin Milioti) discovers that she seems to be reliving the same day over and over. Sarah is confused, but Nyles (Andy Samberg) is nonchalant. "It's one of those infinite time loop situations," he explains.

This is a film you've seen before. But as "Palm Springs" realizes, seeing a movie or a day or a person you love over and over isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Indeed, since 1993's "Groundhog Day," time loop films have become almost as much of a Hollywood formula as the rom-com. A movie like "Palm Springs," which is both a rom-com and a time loop, is a long repetitive trope about repetition. This is a film you've seen before. But as "Palm Springs" realizes, seeing a movie or a day or a person you love over and over isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Like many a rom-com, "Palm Springs" takes place at a wedding. Sarah is the sister of the bride. Nyles is the boyfriend of bridesmaid Misty (Meredith Hagner), who, it turns out, is cheating on him. When the film starts, Nyles has already been reliving the day of the wedding in a "Groundhog Day"-like time loop. He can't escape or change anything permanently, and he's been trapped for what may subjectively be decades or even hundreds of years. As he says with bleak resignation, he's had "to learn how to suffer existence." But then Sarah follows him into a mysterious cave that created the chrono-anomaly and ends up trapped, as well.

Time loop stories are often about investigating the logic and the parameters of the time loop itself. Natasha Lyonne learns which stairs will kill her in the Netflix series "Russian Doll"; Tom Cruise figures out the pseudoscientific explanation for his repetitive rebirth in "Edge of Tomorrow." These are quests, with the romantic storyline generally a secondary plot consideration. In "Groundhog Day," Andie MacDowell is more of a prize than a person — she's the happy ending Bill Murray gets when he figures out how to get out of his loop. "Happy Death Day" has a similar dynamic, albeit with the guy as the prize and the female lead as the person trying to break the curse.

But in "Palm Springs," Nyles — like the viewer — is an old hand at time loops and doesn't need to experiment. He already knows that the day restarts whenever you fall asleep or die. He knows that demonstrating personal growth or doing good deeds doesn't get you out; the time loop has no moral purpose or logic. He can warn Sarah to take her seat belt off before a car crash, since instant death and resurrection is way better than torturous agony in the ICU. Sarah does do her own experimenting, but that's not really the focus of the narrative.

In "Groundhog Day," Andie MacDowell is more of a prize than a person — she's the happy ending Bill Murray gets when he figures out how to get out of his loop.

Instead, the point of the movie is the relationship between the protagonists. The story isn't about an individual trying to wrest meaning from the existential grind. It's about how the existential grind doesn't seem so bad when you have someone to share it with. By having Nyles and Sarah cycle through the same day together, "Palm Springs" turns its storyline into a fairly conventional rom-com.

But while "conventional" is often a criticism, successful rom-coms aren't successful because they're new or innovative. They're successful because the protagonists are appealing enough that you root for their happiness. As he's demonstrated on "Brooklyn 99," Andy Samberg is good at being a good guy; he looks positively radiant as he realizes that he has something to live for after all. Cristin Milioti, in contrast, is all angles and nervous energy and a kind of transcendent stubbornness. They're people you want to spend more time with. They're people you want to wake up with, again and again.

Nyles and Sarah may live the same day over and over, going through the motions of a tedious and pointless existence. But they use that one repeated day to do the things couples in rom-coms always do — they share goofy fun, long talks, physical intimacy, the false breakup and final reconciliation. Spoiler warnings would be ridiculous; you know the drill.

But here the predictability isn't a bug; it's a feature. "Groundhog Day" was new and innovative. "Palm Springs," though, leans into its mundanity. People like time loop stories; people like rom-coms. The familiar can be a hellish trap, but it can also be a comfort, and even something more than a comfort.

"What if we get sick of each other?" Sarah asks Nyles worriedly. "We're already sick of each other," he says, like a revelation. "It's the best!" As someone who's been married for 20 years, I think that's a pretty great way to sum up the pleasures of a long-term relationship, in which love makes even tedium a joy.