Is it really true that we can’t have any fun anymore, that escapism is not a healthy periodic indulgence but rather the neglect of all the things we cannot solve but about which we are supposed to stew unceasingly?
We doubt it, but you would not know if from some of the criticism that greeted “Palm Springs,” a delightful romantic comedy released for streaming July 10. The movie, which was filmed in the spring of 2019, does not address or anticipate the global pandemic or the civil unrest surrounding the killing of George Floyd, partly for obvious reasons having to do with time typically running only in one direction. And it is not dark or solemn; it is one of the few bright comedies released this year. The criticism was that it does not more directly address our troubles, which is a tall task for entertainment conceived last year, perhaps not unlike the scene in “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” when the Knights of Ni tell Arthur he must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring.
It is wrong to fault art for what it doesn’t do. We must take it on its terms or not at all. What “Palm Springs” does is pose a question, as it happens, about what would happen if time did not always run in one direction.
Nyles and Sarah, played by Andy Samberg and a winning Cristin Milioti, meet at a wedding in Palm Springs. Nyles is stuck in a time loop, destined to always awaken in a hotel where the wedding will be held, on Nov. 9. Soon Sarah, the sister of the bride, has fallen into the loop, too, or else she has unknowingly fallen into the loop on Nov. 9 before; or she has unknowingly been in Nyles’ Nov. 9 loop many times before; this is one of the many space-time quirks the movie lightly but seriously engages. Realizing they are in the loop together now, they of course fall in love and much of the movie is about their efforts to get out of the loop but stay together.
The great touchstone here is “Groundhog Day,” the 1993 comedy in which Bill Murray played TV weatherman Phil Connors, stuck in a loop of Feb. 2. That film blended laughs with world-weariness to great success, and while Samberg is no Murray (and who else is?), “Palm Springs” does something similar. It also has some surprisingly tender moments, as when time-stuck Nyles and Sarah camp out in the desert and see, against a star-bedecked sky, two great dinosaurs gently moving on the horizon, leading us to wonder whether all time has converged (this is actually, spoiler alert, CGI effects applied to a Palm Springs roadside attraction, the Cabazon Dinosaurs, which as far as we know are made of steel and concrete).
Phil Connors had to learn to be less self-centered to break his spell. In “Palm Springs,” Nyles must overcome his understandable cynicism – which seems like a message with an application these days, too.
There is art and even entertainment that is relentlessly current, speaking to our specific dissatisfactions, though seldom our joys, with revolutionary ardor. Making art and trouble, good trouble, together will always have a place.
But just as no one can live on bread alone, it is useless to pretend that no one will want to laugh even in the worst of times, and perhaps especially then, let alone have our capacity for wonder evoked, as “Palm Springs” does so well with those dinosaurs.