TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. At a time when many Americans are still home and life seems to have come to a standstill, our film critic Justin Chang says it could be an especially good time to watch "Palm Springs," a romantic comedy about two people forced to repeat the same day over and over again. It stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. It's streaming on Hulu and playing in some drive-in theaters around the country.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Palm Springs" was a hot ticket at this year's Sundance Film Festival, one of the last public events to take place before the movie industry shut down. I didn't see it there, but having caught up with it months later at home, I can't help but feel as though this breezily entertaining movie plays a little differently in the era of COVID-19. It's a comedy about isolation and repetition, which might not sound too appealing at a time when many of us are also leading lives of isolation and repetition. But don't let that dissuade you. This first feature directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara turns out to be a total winner. Sharp, funny and even profound in a sneakily offhand way.
The story is a riff on that Harold Ramis classic "Groundhog Day," in which Bill Murray had to keep replaying the same day until he learned to become a selfless person. But "Palm Springs" isn't trying to push that message; it knows that just getting through life with your dignity intact can be hard enough. That's certainly true for Sarah, played by Cristin Milioti, who's serving as maid of honor in her sister's wedding in the California desert town of Palm Springs. As Sarah drinks too much and bubbles her way through the reception, she finds herself intrigued by one of the guests, Nyles, played by Andy Samberg. Nyles is kind of a goofball but also manages to work the room with disarming ease. It's almost as if he's been through this event before and knows everything that's going to happen.
Sarah finds out why when she follows him that night into a mysterious cave out in the desert. Within seconds, she's waking up the next morning only to find that it's actually the same morning as before, the morning of the wedding. Time has reset itself. In a panic, Sarah tracks down Nyles at the hotel where they're staying. He explains that when she entered the cave, she made a big mistake.
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ANDY SAMBERG: (As Nyles) I guess you followed me.
CRISTIN MILIOTI: (As Sarah) What's going on?
SAMBERG: (As Nyles) I tried to stop you.
MILIOTI: (As Sarah) But what is this? When is this?
SAMBERG: (As Nyles) Yeah. About that - so this is today. Today is yesterday. And tomorrow is also today. It's one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard about (laughter).
MILIOTI: (As Sarah) That I might have heard about?
SAMBERG: (As Nyles) Yeah.
CHANG: There have been a lot of those infinite time loop situations in recent movies and TV - some of them excellent, like the Tom Cruise action thriller "Edge Of Tomorrow" and the Netflix mystery series "Russian Doll." The pop-savvy makers of "Palm Springs" clearly know those stories and suspect that you might know them, too. As a result, they're able to jettison a lot of the usual exposition about how this world works and simply cut to the chase. Sarah is eager to bust out of the time loop, but Nyles - who's been stuck here for ages - tries to dissuade her. Virtuous acts won't work. Suicide won't work, although that doesn't stop Sarah from driving straight into the path of an oncoming truck, just to see what happens.
Eventually, Nyles persuades her to stop fighting the space-time continuum and just enjoy their time together. And so she does. With the threat of permanent death removed, these two misfits are suddenly free to embrace the craziness of every moment. Sometimes they blow off the wedding to go on long desert drives and hang out in bars. Sometimes they stick around for the wedding so they can play tricks on the guests, who won't remember anything anyway. The guests are played by fine actors, including Peter Gallagher, June Squibb and Meredith Hagner. J.K. Simmons also gives a terrific wild-card performance as a guy who pops up at the wedding on some days but not others, for reasons that the story will soon make amusingly clear.
As fiendishly clever as it is on the surface, "Palm Springs" has a pretty straightforward takeaway - since life can sometimes be pointless and tedious, whether you're stuck in a time loop or not, you might as well spend it with someone you love. It's pretty good advice. Even still, Sarah doesn't know how much longer she can stand being trapped in this desert purgatory, especially since Nyles seems so lazily resigned to his fate.
I won't give away whether they succeed in escaping or not. I will say that the movie doesn't entirely avoid a tired gender dynamic in which a smart, determined woman has to expend a lot of emotional and mental energy just to get her boyfriend to want to move forward. But I love the way the actors conspire to subvert that dynamic. Samberg isn't as hilarious as he was in the music-biz satire "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping," but he does have the whole amiable doofus slacker routine down pat. But he's eclipsed by Milioti, a versatile performer who won a Grammy for the Broadway musical "Once" and who can turn from madcap comedy to breathtaking emotion on a dime. I'd watch her in anything any day.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic at the LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Jane Mayer. In her new article in The New Yorker, she writes about how meatpacking and poultry processing plants have been hard hit by the pandemic, and she investigates how Trump helped one poultry processing titan leverage the pandemic to strip workers of protections. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.