Filmmaker Max Barbakow makes a break-out début with ‘Palm Springs’, which may sound absurd on paper but is incredibly satisfying on screen
In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s dangerously humane After Life (1998), a motley group of 10 characters, who have slipped and fallen into the other world, is taken into what appears like an investigation room, by the members of a secret society. Moments later, each character is asked to pick one favourite memory from their lifetime — that would be made into a documentary and shown, before they disappear into thin air. When they make their selection, the past is completely erased with the exceptions of what they have chosen. For, they continue to hold on to that memory — a blessing and a pitfall depending on what you would want to remember for eternity and beyond.
Now, imagine life presented you with a chance to spend time with a stranger you have a crush on, in a recurrent memory you keep waking up to that gradually erases the memories of the past. In such a case, would you rather force yourself to love them or gracefully accept your reality, giving them space and time? Would the past be as important as the present? Or would it be a proponent, propelling into the future?
For Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) in Palm Springs — which looks like a work that would put a smile on Charlie Kaufman’s face — it is a bit of both. Two extremely lonely people who are extremely insecure about loneliness, learn to suffer existence when the duo finds out that they have been stuck in a time loop — where the past becomes the immediate present, and the present becomes a distant past. Confusing much? Not so, if you are fan of About Time and movies that have used and abused the bending-of-time trope.
Palm Springs, in essence, is a fairly simple movie and that works largely to the film’s advantage. It remains grounded and less aspirational till the very end, without the temptations to make it cooler. Max Barbakow takes up a familiar conceit: a badass woman with stepmom issues whose family hates her, a lover boy who is in a loveless relationship, and a man in his fifties who is trapped in the monotony of marriage — all these mounted on the backdrop of a wedding. It is a classic setting and the writing is Judd Apatow-ish. But Barbakow owns the script, sometimes making it look like a conglomerate of The Westworld and About Time.
- Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and JK Simmons
- Director: Max Barbakow
- Storyline: They are two strangers with conflicting personalities who stumble upon each other at a wedding. Their heartwarming meet-cute encounter turns into the stuff of a nightmare when reality hits them in the gut: they are stuck in an infinite time loop.
At the core, we have Nyles who is dating Misty, the bridesmaid of Tala whose wedding is about to be held in Palm Springs. Nyles is a near-outsider in this wedding, until he locks eyes with Sarah, Tala’s sister who is made to feel like an outsider. He gives a superbly bland speech, trying to impress Sarah, that ends on this note: “…but always remember: you are not alone”. He only contradicts himself when Sarah gives in to his charms. “That’s all nonsense. We’re all alone.”
They make out in the midst of caves and mountains, before their romantic adventures are cut short by Roy (JK Simmons), who looks straight out of Arrow, and shoots arrows at Nyles. “Marriage is a bottomless pit of sorrow that makes you forget who you are,” says Roy when he exchanges pleasantries with Nyles, at the wedding. Roy is also stuck in the tapestry of a time loop, thanks to Nyles who took him to a mysterious cave that remains a mystery till the end. Strike out Roy’s portion from the screenplay and it still won’t affect the movie. It appears his character was added just for the sake of drama and for Nyles to have a heart-to-heart conversation with him about life, which, as you may have guessed, is a cue for climax.
Every great movie is built on with what screenwriters call ‘plot points’ — a labyrinth of ‘what if’ scenarios that would alter the course of the narrative, ideally, for every 30 minutes. The plot points, as some would argue, are as important, if not more, than the first 20 minutes — in medical terms, it is the spine that binds the narrative together. In some movies, the possibilities for what if conditions are more delicious and palpable than actual events — like Palm Springs. The plot point arrives early on, when a character asks Nyles how he was placed in the day. He says, “Today, yesterday, tomorrow. It’s all the same.” The dialogue might seem inconsequential at first, making us suspect of a man suffering from existentialism. Only later do we realise its actual meaning: of a man stuck in a limbo, like Cobb and Martha from Inception. Like the characters from Christopher Nolan’s now-cult movie, Nyles and Misty invent their own projections that come with their own challenges, and relive the same memory all over again.
They make and break Tala’s wedding night with a devil-may-care attitude. They take comfort in each other’s existence and take refuge in moonlight, watching dinosaurs leave. They sport leftover costumes from a Spaghetti Western and hang out with a character, who, again, looks like an extra from a Spaghetti Western. They promise to not have sex, as that would complicate their already complicated lives, but eventually give in to their romantic urge — some of these portions are superficially funny, and may look and sound cartoonish, but are written with a great amount of tenderness. Death is only a momentary fix to wipe out their past, but what about the pain that comes with it? — we are looking at you, fans of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Halfway through the movie, you tend to forget about Nyles and Sarah and begin to wonder what would happen to you, had you been trapped in an endless cycle of time. Would the memories of the past continue to torment you or would you be buoyed by the immediate present? Perhaps Sarah is right. “Sometimes, you need to know the entire package.”
Palm Springs is streaming on Hulu