If the coronavirus had never come along and “Palm Springs” was being released into a few hundred (or a couple thousand) theaters this week, the pressure would have been intense on the Max Barbakow comedy. After all, back in January the movie landed the largest deal in the history of the Sundance Film Festival at more than $17.5 million, which put it at risk of joining other recent eight-figure Sundance deals that didn’t result in box-office gold: “Late Night,” “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” “Blinded by the Light,” “The Birth of a Nation” and, really, the majority of the big-money Sundance deals since “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006.
But with theaters closed, “Palm Springs” will be debuting in scattered drive-in theaters but mostly on Hulu, where the expectations won’t be so high and the return on Hulu and Neon’s investment can’t be so easily quantified. And maybe that will allow people to enjoy the film not for what it says about Sundance deal-making, but for the film itself — a thoroughly enjoyable indie spin on the time-loop premise that has been central to everything from the classic comedy “Groundhog Day” to the sci-fi action flicks “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Source Code” to the TV series “Russian Doll.”
Of course, “Groundhog Day” is the obvious point of comparison, with “Palm Springs” being an indie rom-com riff on the conceit that found Bill Murray’s weatherman reliving the same day over and over again. In this case, the guy stuck in a day that endlessly repeats is played by Andy Samberg, and he’s been stuck in that single day for so long that he can’t even remember the job he held before he headed to the desert resort town of Palm Springs for the wedding of a friend of his girlfriend.
We meet Samberg’s character, Nyles, when he wakes up on the morning of the wedding and halfheartedly ogles the leg of his girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner). In fact, he’s pretty halfhearted about everything all day long, wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt to the wedding and exerting himself only to step in and deliver a touching speech that bails out the unprepared and inebriated maid of honor and black-sheep sister of the bride, Sarah (Cristin Milioti).
She’s touched by the gesture, and before long the two of them are out in the desert in the middle of the night preparing to have torrid sex. But some powerful coitus interruptus arrives when a mysterious, angry archer shoots an arrow into Nyles’ back — and when Sarah follows him into a nearby cave to escape the bowman who’s hunting him, she ends up sucked into the same loop in which Nyles has been living for who knows how long.
From this point on, no matter what Sarah does or where she goes, she’ll wake up every morning in the Palm Springs hotel room on the day of the wedding. She freaks out at the idea, but Nyles is blasé as he explains that she’s stuck and that even killing herself will simply give her an earlier reset to the morning: “It’s one of those infinite time-loop situations you may have heard of,” he says.
If Nyles is blasé about it, that’s because he’s blasé about pretty much everything. “Today, tomorrow, yesterday,” he shrugs. “It’s all the same.”
It isn’t really all the same, though, even if it always starts the same way. “Palm Springs” finds plenty of variations on the wedding day — some descend into slapstick, some are rooted in Sarah’s anger and for a stretch in the middle of the movie, it’s all about these two sad-sack cynics embracing the silliness of a predicament where they can do pretty much anything without consequence. (It helps that death is the kind of thing that can be played for laughs under this premise, which you could sum up as “Infinite Weddings and No Funeral.”)
The setup is durable, as “Russian Doll” has most recently proven, but Barbakow, Samberg, Milioti and writer Andy Siara find a freshness in the way they play with it and the way they mess with the romantic comedy tropes that are all but inevitable when you stick a couple together like this movie does. So yeah, Nyles needs to mature and Sarah needs to stop being self-destructive, but neither of those things actually helps them much in a playful film that mocks the usual time-loop ideas that you can get out of it by living a perfect, selfless day or finding true happiness or killing the bad guy.
This is a version of “Groundhog Day” that throws in fights, explosions, synchronized dance routines in a pool hall and incidental lessons in grammar (funny) and quantum physics (incomprehensible). Plus J.K. Simmons, priceless as always as that guy shooting arrows at Nyles when he’s not barbecuing salmon for his wife and kids in Irvine.
“Palm Springs” might make your head hurt if you think too much about it — or, I don’t know, maybe it’ll all make perfect sense. But what’s the point of thinking too much about a consistently pleasing and occasionally touching comedy featuring people who are fun to watch?
And hey, we’re all still (mostly) on lockdown anyway, right? It might just be the perfect time for an inventive comedy about isolation and repetition.