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Funny ‘Palm Springs’ makes the most of the ‘Groundhog Day’ formula

Charming stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti play strangers in a time loop in one of the year’s best romances.

Stuck in a loop repeating the same day over and over, Nyles (Andy Samberg) accidentally dooms Sarah (Cristin Milioti) to the same fate in “Palm Springs.”
Hulu

“Today, tomorrow, yesterday, it’s all the same” – Andy Samberg’s Nyles, speaking the truth in “Palm Springs.”

In the 1993 Harold Ramis classic “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray’s Phil goes it alone. He’s the only one doomed to repeating the same day, over and over and OVER, while the townsfolk of Punxsutawney as well as Phil’s producer (and eventual love interest) Rita and his cameraman Larry are all oblivious to their roles in Phil’s time-lock spiritual journey.

It would be folly to discuss the smart and charming and wickedly funny “Palm Springs” without noting the obvious influence of “Groundhog Day,” but there are variations on the main theme, most notably in that Andy Samberg’s Nyles isn’t the only one repeating the same day on a continual loop. Well, he WAS alone, for hundreds and hundreds of days, but now he has company after inadvertently dragging a stranger named Sarah into the vortex — and to say Sarah’s not happy about it doesn’t begin to describe her reaction.

Like “Groundhog Day” (and “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Happy Death Day” and “Russian Doll” and in a way “50 First Dates”), “Palm Springs” is a comedy/drama with a metaphysical twist, and the formula has rarely been mined to such resounding success. This is one of the funniest movies of the year AND one of the most romantic movies as well, thanks to the sure-handed and light directorial touch of Max Barbakow; a nomination-worthy screenplay by Andy Siara; the immensely charming lead performances by Andy Samberg as Nyles and Cristin Milioti, and a great supporting cast led by J.K Simmons, Peter Gallagher and Camila Mendes. This is one of those movies where it feels as if the filmmakers and the actors had as much fun making it as we have watching it.

“Palm Springs” hits the ground running, with Samberg’s Nyles already trapped in the same 24 hours — Saturday, Nov. 9, the wedding day of Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). Nyles is there as the plus-one of his girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagne), an irritatingly self-consumed Instagram model who wakes up Nyles, reluctantly agrees to have sex with him, and then cuts short the lovemaking because she doesn’t want to smudge her makeup and she needs to get ready for the big day.

This happens. Every. Morning.

The first time we see Nyles living it up at the posh, outdoor wedding reception, it’s clear he has on some level come to accept and even embrace his inexplicable predicament. He’s clad in inappropriate yellow shorts and bright Hawaiian shirt, he shocks the guests and the staffers with how much he knows about their lives (shades of the diner scene in “Groundhog Day”) and he executes some elaborately choreographed dance moves based on his knowledge of exactly how everyone else is about to move. (Samberg’s perfectly timed comedic dance routine is in the tradition of Chaplin and Groucho Marx; it’s just … great.)

Not that it’s all existential bliss for Nyles. For one thing, a mysteriously and apparently insane madman named Roy (J.K. Simmons), armed with a bow and arrows, keeps on surfacing with the intention of killing Nyles, who of course can’t actually be killed. And then there’s Sarah (Milioti), the bride’s older sister, who reacts to suddenly being trapped in the time loop with a series of f-bombs and predictably tries to escape the trap by driving hundreds of miles to her home in Austin — only to wake up at the hotel on the morning of the wedding.

Samberg and Milioti have a winning chemistry as their characters bicker and banter and quibble, eventually form an alliance, and then of course consider the possibility of romance. Nyles has given up hope of breaking the spell or even trying to understand it; hey, if they happen to see dinosaurs in the distance on the beach one night, so be it. Sarah, meanwhile, studies Quantum Physics in search of a real-world solution, questions if “this is a karma thing” or if they’re in a parallel world, to which Nyles sarcastically replies, “Yeah no, I never thought about the multi-verse” possibility.

Peter Gallagher (with Jacqueline Obradors) oozes condescension as the father of the bride.
Hulu

J.K. Simmons does his trademark thing of taking a small-ish role and turning it into something memorable, especially in a late scene where we learn the truth about Roy’s life. As the father of the bride, Peter Gallagher is in his comfort zone as well. Who wears expensive sweaters and oozes middle-aged, upper-class condescension better than Peter Gallagher?

Director Barbakow drops in some pitch-perfect touches, e.g., a wedding sign that says “FOREVER,” and soundtrack choices such as “When the Morning Comes” by Hall & Oates. “Palm Springs” doesn’t get bogged down in the who or why of what has happened to Nyles and then Sarah; how could it? We just go with it, and whether or not these two ever make it back to the other side, we hope they wind up together, because they are great together.