It’s often said that a movie can feel of the moment, that it came out at exactly the right place and time for audiences to identify with and feel heard.
“Palm Springs,” a small romantic comedy that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival when things were normal, has a very “of the moment” vibe that no one – not even first-time director Max Barbakow or screenwriter Andy Siara – could have seen coming.
At its core, “Palm Springs” is a film about isolation and how we deal with feelings of empty aloneness even as people seemingly float around us.
In the “new normal” of social distancing and mask wearing for self-protection and the safety of those around us – especially in the heat of summer – there’s an interpersonal disconnect to life in 2020 that “Palm Springs” intimately captures with its quirky take on a familiar narrative.
The film follows Nyles, a carefree loner stuck at another wedding with his cheating girlfriend, when he strikes up a friendship with maid-of-honor Sarah. The next morning, things become complicated when the new friends cannot escape each other, the desert wedding venue or themselves.
“Saturday Night Live” alum Andy Samberg is an affable yet quirky choice for Nyles, shining here in more serious comedic fodder than audiences may be used to seeing from him in comedic film work. The general sense of apathy he brings to the character feels authentic to the plot rather than a forced device to create conflict and Samberg is genuinely entertaining throughout the film even as the tone changes at a whim.
His laissez-faire attitude also serves as a perfect foil for the more aggressive and standoffish Sarah, played by “How I Met Your Mother” actress Cristin Milioti.
While it’s clear that Samberg is the main focus of “Palm Springs,” Milioti frequently steals scenes with her expressive eyes and wry attitude that she flings into snarky lines of dialogue as Sarah challenges and mystifies Nyles.
The hate-to-like-to-love path romantic comedies often take doesn’t hinder the chemistry between Samberg and Milioti as both performers are so in the moment that it pulls the audience in from the outlandishness of the circumstances Nyles and Sarah are in.
Oscar winner and veteran character actor J.K. Simmons gets to flex his comedic and dramatic chops in the film’s primary supporting role as most of the ensemble cast feel like bystanders in Nyles’ and Sarah’s story rather than a true part of the narrative. His Roy leans into the no-nonsense attitude that is prevalent in a great Simmons performance while also providing much needed gravitas throughout and some key emotional depth.
Instead of rebooting the plot of one of Hollywood’s most beloved rom-coms, Barbakow and Siara peel elements of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” to give “Palm Springs” a hot yellow hue while rearranging the timeline in order to give their own perspective on the genre without becoming a rip-off of a classic.
The film moves at a pretty rapid pace, infusing character development within each scene as moments of calm among the chaos. It’s a brisk 90-minute adventure that feels right for keeping the plot from veering too wildly off course, as if it were a singular episode of a longer series audiences were dropped into the middle of.
It’s important that first-time viewers go into “Palm Springs” with as little information as possible, even avoiding trailers if at all possible as the film’s unique hook is better without prior knowledge. Doing this increases the boldness of Siara’s screenplay and the genuine chemistry between Samberg and Milioti as unlikely partners dealing with the plot’s twists and turns.
One of the hottest films to come out of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “Palm Springs” was acquired by Hulu for a record-breaking $17 million, the highest distribution deal in the history of the festival.
“Palm Springs” has the comedic fun of an irreverent Judd Apatow movie with a smartly penned script, crisp direction and a wildly entertaining narrative that makes it a must-see home viewing on Hulu.