Chemistry — real screen chemistry — is a rare enough commodity that encountering it in the wild can make a viewer giddy. “Palm Springs,” a new film debuting on Hulu (and appearing at selected drive-ins across the country), is a left-field delight for any number of reasons, including a terrifically smart screenplay and a plot that mashes up two old conceits to come up with something wholly new. But what makes the movie fly are the interlocking energies of its leading players, Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti.
Or, rather, the characters they play. Nyles (Samberg) is laid back; Sarah (Milioti) is tightly wound. Nyles is affably cynical; Sarah is desperate for something to believe in. Nyles looks like someone who has seen it all — and actually has — and Sarah has seen just about enough, thank you. Samberg’s sharp comic shambling is familiar from “Saturday Night Live,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the genially silly comedy “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” (2016), and the underseen romantic drama “Celeste and Jesse Forever” (2012). Milioti was nominated for a Tony for Broadway’s “Once,” played the first Mrs. Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), has a lot of TV credits, but is otherwise new to me. He is his usual reliable self, grounded and funny. She is a revelation.
It’s a wedding movie, at first. Sarah is sister of the bride (Camila Mendes) and the family lost cause. Nyles came with a friend (Meredith Hagner) of the bride, and he’s so freed by his no-name status as “Misty’s boyfriend” — and by Misty’s wifty cheating ways — that he can rescue Sarah from a disastrous reception speech and compare notes with her as the only other sane person there.
We’re about 15 minutes in before “Palm Springs” becomes something else entirely, and if you like your movies truly unspoiled — and this is a twist worth experiencing at full velocity — you might want to stop reading now and come back later. No shame. See you in a few.
For those remaining: To say that Nyles and Sarah have been here before, or in variations thereof, is literal, for Nyles is stuck in a “Groundhog Day”-style time loop where this wedding day has repeated itself so many times he has forgotten what he used to do for a living. Early in “Palm Springs,” Sarah joins him in that circular limbo — there’s a how and a why, but it’s not really important — and the movie becomes a unique beast, an existential romantic comedy. As Sarah comes to terms with her predicament, she passes through the usual Kubler-Ross stages: denial, anger, depression. Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day” hero went through them, too; what’s different here is that Sarah has company and, for lack of a better word, a mentor.
What would it be like to be stuck on a desert island with someone for eternity, except that the island was one day and had people in it? “Palm Springs,” which unfolds in the sunny, dusty California desert of the title, works infinite (in theory) variations on the couple’s interactions with the other guests: the bride’s father (Peter Gallagher), the glib groom (Tyler Hoechlin), someone’s Nana (sweet old June Squibb from “Nebraska”), a world-weary bartender (Jena Friedman). Nyles has already experienced every permutation of encounter with this crew, and with the denizens of a desert biker bar that’s his home away from the wedding, but one of the movie’s slyer points is that the permutations are infinite in reality and we can see Sarah going galaxy-brain just figuring that out.
There’s a subplot involving a third wedding guest stuck in this hamster wheel and while it doesn’t add much to the film, J.K. Simmons keeps it fun and, when necessary, gruffly moving. And even as “Palm Springs” spirals forward, it sticks to the time-honored framework of romantic comedy, with the required beats of frustration, infatuation, betrayal, and forgiveness. (The wheel spins fast and well but is not reinvented.) Yet Andy Siara’s script and first-timer Max Barbakow’s direction add meat to the bones in the form of Sarah’s crippling lack of self-worth and Nyles’s amused nihilism, which is his only armor against insanity.
That said, the movie moves like a breeze. The actors are physically as well as emotionally complementary, Samberg with his narrow eyes and big, toothy grin and Milioti dark and tense, her face impassive while her eyebrows are signaling panic. She plays Sarah as a woman waiting for the meteor to hit. Samberg plays Nyles as a guy who knows it already did. “Palm Springs” is a love story for a world where every day’s exactly the same, and while you might find that a little eerily on point just now, it’s also a comfort. Trust your heart, it says — and maybe bone up on a little quantum theory while you’re at it.
Directed by Max Barbakow. Written by Andy Siara. Starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons. Available on Hulu. 87 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language).