Palm Springs (2020)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Happy Death Day (2017)

As promised in its (brilliant) advertising, Happy Death Day‘s defining gimmick is dutifully reimagining the 1990s comedy Groundhog Day as a violent teen slasher. What the ads don’t convey, however, is that the slasher end of that gimmick is very much tied to the second wave slasher boom that invaded the horror genre in the nü metal days of the late 90s & early 00s. Happy Death Day‘s general atmosphere of a late 90s slasher relic extends beyond its shithead college students’ slut-shaming, carb-counting, disability/rape/queer sexuality-mocking ways to inform even its basic approach to horror. Its depictions of PG-13 acceptable violence echo the big budget action & comedy beats that tinged post-Scream slashers like Urban Legend & I Know What You Did Last Summer. There’s a masked killer who murders our (deeply flawed) protagonist dozens & dozens of times on her birthday as she relives the same time loop on endless repeat, but outside a few jump scares & moments of horror tradition teen-stalking, the film doesn’t truly aim to terrorize. Repetition allows the doomed sorority girl to adjust to her supernaturally morbid predicament and Happy Death Day gradually evolves into a girly (even if mean-girly) comedy that employs horror more as a setting than as an ethos. It surprisingly owes just as much to big budget, post-Scream slashers (and maybe even their Scary Movie spoofs) for its tonal DNA as it does to the timeline loop plot of Groundhog Day.

Not only does the sorority girl victim at the film’s center have to relive the day of her murder on an endless loop, she begins that day hungover & stumbling home from a drunken hookup’s dorm room. Much like Bill Murray’s bitter anti-hero in Groundhog Day, she’s a mean, selfish brat with an ever-growing list of enemies she pettily steps over as a sorority bully caricature. Her ethical shortcomings both set up a plot progression where she incrementally becomes a better person throughout the film and allow for a long list of potential suspects who might want her dead. Is the killer one of her socially-slighted sorority sisters?  One of her ghosted sexual partners or their girlfriends/wives? The father whose phone calls she continually ignores in each loop? A total stranger? Unraveling the paranormal mystery of who repeatedly murders this deeply flawed, but gradually improving sorority monster on her birthday is obviously a significant part of what makes the movie a dumb, fun time. Happy Death Day eventually adds accumulative stakes to its resettable scenario, but for the most part the protagonist enjoys a kind of supernatural privilege in her time loop immortality that allows her to treat her own life as a kind of consequence-free playground. Of course, it’s a repeatedly deadly playground that cyclically concludes with a violent murder by the hands of a masked killer, but it’s ultimately all in good fun.

Like with most dumb fun slashers, the ideal audience for Happy Death Day might be dark-humored teens just slightly younger than the college campus caricatures that populate the film. As with his bro-minded horror comedy Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, director Christopher B. Landon has the sensibilities of a teenage boy who just watched Army of Darkness for the first time. As an adult, Happy Death Day‘s mean teen humor can sometimes land a little awkwardly, as can its romantic subplot about a sorority hottie becoming a “better” person by falling in love with a horror nerd with They Live! & Repo Man posters on his dorm room wall instead of the meathead bozos she usually bangs (not to mention the way it congratulates him for not raping her after a night of hard-drinking, the bare minimum of human decency). That mentality feels especially gross right now, given current conversations about the gender politics shortcomings of genre film nerd culture institutions like Ain’t It Cool News, Fantastic Fest, and Alamo Drafthouse. A softer, less discerning teen mind searching only for a fun gimmick & memorable kills is a lot less likely to get hung up on those details. The film’s college campus setting & campus life caricatures play directly to that demographic as well, especially when they include images like frat paddles, school mascots, bongs, and sorority houses in their kill scenes. You even get the sense that an earlier draft of the script might have been titled Monday the 18th (the date that endlessly repeats) as a nod to its direct, Jason Voorhees-style appeal to teenage audiences.

Even more surprising than Happy Death Day‘s adherence to a nü metal 90s slasher aesthetic & mean girl sorority humor is its New Orleans setting. Watching the film just blocks away from its Loyola campus filming location was a surreal experience, one backed up by the tree moss & streetcars in the background and the school mascot/killer’s mask bearing a striking resemblance to the (even more terrifying) king cake baby mascot that seasonally appears at our local NBA games. I honestly fall a little too perfectly in the film’s target audience Venn diagram to offer an unbiased opinion: I was a teenage boy who grew up on post-Scream slashers; I consider Groundhog Day to be one of the best-written films of all time; I’m a lifelong New Orleans resident. I personally hit the full Happy Death Day demographic trifecta. Even being immersed in that perspective, I like to imagine that plenty of other people, especially 2010s teens, will have blast with the film. It’s not the clever, paradigm-shifting Groundhog Day reimagining of Edge of Tomorrow, but it’s still solidly entertaining as a dumb fun horror flick. It’s just one that admittedly focuses more on the dumb fun than it does on the horror.

-Brandon Ledet