Sunday 27 March 2022

On demand: "Palm Springs"

Max Barbakow's
 Palm Springs was an artefact of the Before Times - a premiere at Sundance 2020 - which came to be fervently embraced during the first wave of the Covid pandemic, for multiple reasons. For starters, it's the kind of light-hearted escapism people will always gravitate towards when the real world gets too much, as it has of late. Much of it takes place at the type of event (a resort wedding) that was deemed off-limits through much of 2020-21. And its narrative opens up the reassuring possibility of alternative timelines, any of which would have been preferable to the one we were stuck in over that period, banging pans in support of overstretched medical staff and having to listen to Gal Gadot and chums sing "Imagine". (And that was if you were lucky enough to be fit and well.) Palm Springs also had the edge over its streaming rivals in being especially well crafted and assembled, Andy Siara's deft, funny and economical screenplay the foundation of a movie that hits a complex series of story beats with the assurance of Rory McIlroy striking golf balls; that treats string theory as mere sport. The set-up is Groundhog Day with greater generosity. Going through the timeloop motions, now so familiar that Siara knows they barely require explanation: not just jaded slacker Nyles (Andy Samberg), stuck both at the aforementioned wedding and in a relationship that's going nowhere, but also Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the maid of honour who follows our guy into a crack in the time-space continuum and quickly finds herself every bit as immortal and miserable as he is.

There are a few whistles and bells, like J.K. Simmons as a third-wheel lounge lizard who comes on like Robert Patrick in Terminator II after Nyles inadvertently lures him into the couple's private hell. But like the great romcoms - and we're not that far off here - it essentially boils down to two likable people trying to thrash out something new: a prospect that's doubly promising and terrifying when your eternal bliss is literally eternal, and thus a problem in dire need of a fix. It's yet another of the recent run of worthwhile American movies that actually owes a certain debt to television, which could be one more reason it made itself so comfortable in locked-down homes. Both leads' timing has been sharpened to a point by long seasons of sitcom, and the basic premise turns out to be fairly sitcommy: the same characters shuffled into different positions with each new iteration of reality, Simmons effectively occupying the grumpy neighbour role in a B-plot adjacent to the main wedding business. The location shoot doubtless helped, but Samberg is the picture of relaxation, and he's also very good at suggesting a certain male passivity; as Nyles puts it, "I don't care about that stuff - that's my whole thing." He perhaps has to relax us to nudge us past the sight of a protagonist wiggling out of one relationship in order to initiate another, though Barbakow has the benefit of Search Party's ever-game Meredith Hagner in the role of Awful Girlfriend #1, and Milioti - who appears to have superceded Lizzy Caplan as the indie sector's wide-eyed brunette of choice, much as Emma Stone superceded Lindsay Lohan as Hollywood's most insurable redhead - opens up the appealing prospect of mischief. It's not ultimately a film about cheating or roadmanship, but it is playful and up for some fun; Sarah's presence in this timeloop also ensures it's not entirely a film about male misadventure or martyrdom, as Groundhog Day and The Butterfly Effect were. Sometimes it takes another human being - and a giant cosmic kick in the seat of our pants - to expand our ambitions and horizons; maybe we needed a movie released during a period of enforced social distancing to remind us of that.

Palm Springs is now streaming via Prime Video.

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