It’s odd, but the movie that feels like it captures, for me, the reality of living under COVID lockdown for almost half a year now is the recent Adam Sandberg comedy Palm Springs, which had a Sundance Film Festival premiere in January 2020 — shortly before the world as we know it ended.
In Palm Springs, we meet Sarah (Cristin Milioti) who is busy getting drunk at her sister Tala’s destination wedding somewhere in Palm Springs, California. She meets Nyles (Sandberg), a louche character in Hawaiian shirt who seems to have all the angles figured out; later, after stealing off with him to watch the stars in the desert, she finds herself stuck in a time loop, living the same day over and over again with a complete stranger.
Yes, it’s like Groundhog Day, if instead you had to share the déjà vu scenario with someone else, someone you didn’t even know, someone you might learn to care about. (And no, it’s not like 50 First Dates, although there are Hawaiian shirts involved.) Palm Springs asks, basically, if you had to spend an unchosen eternity with somebody, who would it be? The locale is a desert spa oasis called Palm Springs, not exactly anybody’s first choice for eternal chilling. You are stuck wherever you are stuck, is the time loop premise.
Similarly, we have found ourselves locked down in a statue dance pose, with COVID acting like our DJ, telling us all to freeze in place. Wherever we may be. Some are stuck abroad, away from families. Many in the Philippines have been isolated from their own parents during GCQ, afraid to risk their health by visiting them. I know some who have had the luck to be stuck in Siargao, or other beach destinations, banned from returning to Manila all this time. The point is, wherever you were when COVID came a-trolling, that’s where you were randomly assigned to stay.
Not for eternity, we hope. Nyles and Sarah suffer the familiar Bill Murray condition: they keep trying to reset their lives, keep trying to outthink the time loop, even keep trying suicide, but… they still wake up in the same (separate) hotel rooms in a Palm Springs hotel, fully aware that they’re stuck in some cosmic joke, but unable to find the “Eject” button.
Sarah makes several attempts to escape the loop, until Nyles lays down all the possible scenarios: “I don’t know what it is. It could be life, it could be death; it might be a dream, I might be imagining you, you might be imagining me; it could be purgatory, or a glitch in the simulation we’re both in. So I decided a while ago to sort of give up and stop trying make sense of things altogether. Because the only way to live in this is to embrace the fact that nothing matters.”
Like many of those during lockdown who have used the seemingly infinite downtime to read unread books, learn to bake bread, study a foreign language or attempt to paint their masterpiece, Nyles and Sarah realize they can wake up each morning and completely reinvent their lives and themselves — within the 24-hour boundaries of space and time, of course. They can study physics, or stage an elaborate ‘80s synth dance in front of bewildered patrons in a biker bar, or take mushrooms and maybe slip back in time and see brontosaurs roaming around. It’s a portal of freedom that’s no less valuable for perhaps being illusory.
It helps that Sandberg and Milioti have lots of fun playing out this premise. At first they’re wary of one another, even if they know they’re trapped together for eternity. Once they realize they’re stuck in a broken record, though, they let loose. They spend a lot of time floating in the hotel swimming pool, beer cans in hand. They learn to shoot automatic rifles. Nyles is a little fuzzy on how long he’s been trapped in a loop, and admits he’s had sex with many people at the wedding party. They steal a small plane and attempt to fly it, knowing they’ll just die and wake up in their hotel beds again. (In this, it also recalls the Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt sci-fi flick Edge of Tomorrow, where death just means instant reset, but with lots more laughs.)
The script by Andy Siara is sharp and funny, even if it doesn’t explore the boundaries of the time loop genre all that deeply. Sarah thinks maybe she can get out of this “purgatory” by doing something selfless — something we’ve seen work in other movies as well — but no go. Meanwhile, Nyles is occasionally being hunted by an aggrieved party guest (J.K. Simmons) who wishes to punish him for past sins.
The big theme, of course, is time and what we do with it, a theme also oddly relevant to our current lockdown status — one that, even now, seems trapped in perptual limbo. Some have really enjoyed the lockdown time; some have gone through stages — denial, bargaining, grief, anger, acceptance — as the COVID crisis has dragged on; and some feel an acute sense of claustrophobia bordering on existential crisis. Nyles and Sarah experience all these phases, but the romantic conceit is the one we’re left with: that being trapped with someone can be a recurring nightmare, or it can be a path to growth, love, understanding. Or it could just be you’ve found the person you’d like to hang out with for eternity.
(Streaming on Hulu.)
(Follow me on Instagram @scottgarceau.)