It’s a certification that has been in motion for a few years now, but Palm Springs has officially solidified the Groundhog Day time-loop plot as its own independent movie genre. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the repeated-day time loop story pioneered in the Harold Ramis classic mutated by a wide range of genre films that have switched up its very specific high-concept premise by plugging it into outlandish sci-fi & horror scenarios: Happy Death Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Russian Doll, Triangle, etc. With Palm Springs, the genre has now come full circle, forgoing the need to alter the Groundhog Day formula in any way and instead just repeating it wholesale. This is a lightly absurdist romcom in which an SNL veteran (Andy Samberg instead of Bill Murray) plays a directionless, disillusioned grump (amusingly described in this instance as a “pretentious sadboy”) who falls in love with an unlikely suitress while learning to care about other people and life in general. And it easily manages to be its own thing, completely independent of Groundhog Day‘s own cynicism-melting loopiness, which is why this feels like the exact moment the genre became its own self-contained entity. We no longer need alien invasions or King Cake Baby slasher villains to distinguish these time-loop movies from their Groundhog Day inspiration source. There’s a wide enough playing field now that a novelty angle on the material is no longer necessary.
What I appreciated most about Palm Springs‘s participation in the Time Loop romcom formula is that it pushes the genre forward by acknowledging the audience’s familiarity with it and jumping into the flow of things way downstream. We join Samberg’s delirious supernatural rut thousands of years into the never-ending cycle, long past the point where his sanity or determination could be expected to be maintained. It’s like joining Groundhog’s Day deep into its second hour, when Murray has long gotten past any attempts to rationalize his way out of his time prison and instead entertains himself with meaningless pranks like teaching the titular groundhog how to drive. Samberg’s helped out of this maddening rut (and led through a series of escalating for-their-own-sake gags) by a love interest (Cristin Milotti) who finds herself at the start of the same go-nowhere journey, which does revert the film back to the time-loop romcom’s original narrative template in some ways. Still, by jumpstarting Samberg’s time-loop delirium thousands of cycles ahead of the opening credits, the movie allows for more bizarre & more immediate payoffs than it would if it belabored the explanation of how he got there. We’ve all seen Groundhog Day; we get it. If we’re going to keep endlessly repeating that same story into infinity, we might as well acknowledge that cultural familiarity and push the premise to its most absurd extremes.
It’s worth pondering why this such an often-repeated story template (besides the fact that Groundhog Day is often taught to future filmmakers in Screenwriting 101 courses). Palm Springs seems to believe that the time-loop scenario is an excellent metaphor for flawed, depressive characters who are stuck in a never-ending personal rut, which is more or less exactly how it was originally applied to Bill Murray’s cynical grump archetype in the first place. This is ultimately a romcom about two stuck, go-nowhere people whose self-destructive internal ruts become external & literal due to a supernatural phenomenon (until they inevitably help each other out the loop by falling in love). There’s an element of that exact metaphor in each central character of the Groundhog Day facsimiles I’ve seen to date, though. If Palm Springs really clarified anything about the time-loop premise’s metaphorical relatability, it’s in how similar this absurd supernatural scenario is to our mundane everyday lives in the real world. It might be the COVID-19 incited rut we’ve all been living through while socially distanced in our homes over recent months that has me thinking this way, but reliving the same goddamn day in the same goddamn space over & over again doesn’t sound like an outlandish sci-fi scenario right now; it just sounds like life. I have even come to a lot of the same philosophical conclusions Samberg’s time-rattled character has much further into his loopy rut than I am: nothing matters; there is no god; causing pain to others for your own amusement is spiritually unfulfilling; and you might as well find love where you can, because nothing is worse than going through this shit alone.
Given the genre’s apparent never-ending adaptability and its resonance with the mundane routines of everyday life, I doubt Palm Springs will be the last of the repeated-day time loop romcoms we’ll see this decade. If anything, the film feels like it’s normalizing the act of repeating Groundhog Day‘s formula wholesale instead of attempting to discover a fresh angle on the material, so it’s essentially opening the floodgates for other participants in the genre to rush through. It may prove to be one of the more consistently funny & surprising repetitions of the formula, though, thanks to its willingness to immediately dive into the deep end of what this outlandish premise can allow instead of just toeing the water. It may also prove to be one of the better-remembered specimens of its ilk too, since it has a literally captive audience stuck at home with nothing much else to do except watch the new Andy Samberg comedy on Hulu. Popstar was much wilder & funnier in its own participation in a much-repeated genre template, but hardly anyone actually watched it. This has a much bigger chance of actually making a cultural impact just because we’ve all been forced into a never-ending collective rut thanks to the pandemic.