2020 was an odd year for movies. The typical movie calendar starts with low end action movies and studio write-offs that they need to put on the calendar somewhere. Then it starts to pick up in the spring, blockbuster summer, horror and drama in the fall, then Oscar movie time around Christmas. The wheels came of in February, however, when the coronavirus hit. That left us with with just that winter dump season, and whatever lambs the movie studios wanted to sacrifice on the alter of empty theaters. The only blockbuster movie that still came out was Tenet (Wonder Woman 1984 just snuck out as well on Christmas, as did Soul). Christopher Nolan’s savior complex lead him to over-think things and release it when almost no one was willing to risk their life to be confused by muddled dialogue. Some other indie films were released this year that were good. The streaming services continue to get in the game with some privately funded films as well. This brings us to Palm Springs. Palm Springs is a Hulu production, so, unless you have Hulu, you probably missed it. While this movie isn’t likely to win any Oscars, the heart of this movie (meaning the core, not the feel good) connects in a way few other films did this year (although I do want to shout out 2019 horror movie The Lighthouse, which is like quarantine on quaaludes mixed with LSD. This is less a recommendation, and more an acknowledgement).
Palm Springs stars SNL funboi Andy Samberg, the mother in How I Met your Mother, Cristin Milioti, and the criminally underrated J.K. Simmons. They all give a good performance, but Milioti was particularly good in what I hope is a breakout role for her. Like most of my favorite movies, Palm Springs defies typical genre archetypes, and could best be described as a sci fi/romcom/drama that doesn’t follow the rules of any of those. The movie is probably best categorized as a dark comedy (also a personal favorite genre). The appeal of this movie for me, however, is the way it captures the essence of the moment. This was clearly not intentional, as the writing, producing and directing were pre-pandemic, but that doesn’t stop this film from capturing the isolation, pain and dread of 2020.
(Here comes the SPOILERS). The film starts out following Andy Samberg as a guest in a wedding in the desert of California. He is joined by his very unfaithful girlfriend and a very small connection to the bride and groom in question. Initially, he is simply a checked out bro at a wedding he clearly doesn’t care about. Things rapidly devolve, however, when he tries to hook up with the sister of the bride (a fantastically unmoored Miliotti). A masked figure shoots him with arrow, and he drags himself into a cave while Miliotti starts to panic. Suddenly, he wakes back up with Miliotti screaming at him. It seems she followed him into the cave and has entered a time loop he is also trapped in… the day of the wedding. Samberg and Miliotti spend the next 30 minutes expositing and exploring the tropes of a time loop movie. It becomes clear, however, that Miliotti’s character cannot live in this loop. The day starts for her at the end of a catastrophic life choice, and reliving that day is too much to bear. It also turns out they are not alone. JK Simmons’ character is also stuck in the loop, and he is not coping well. He has made it his goal to punish Samberg’s character. His process working through his anger is his journey. Samberg himself has been in the time loop for far too long and has lost interest and hope in the situation. While Samberg and Miliotti experience a romantic connection, it is more of a side plot to a larger question. How do you cope with relentless, hopeless monotony? Anger? Despair? Determination? (SPOILERS complete)
2020 has been the season of relentless, hopeless monotony. We are all trapped in our homes to some extent, forced to abandon our typical life cycle. We cannot socialize, learn, work, or explore like we want to. We must hide from one another, not by choice, but by prudence. The few people we are VERY close to, we are trapped with to an extent that feels overwhelming at times (like being stuck in a time loop every day for decades with one or two other people). Even before 2020 started, we were heading to a path of increased isolation. The internet had/has become the primary means of connection for many, and true connection has moved from overt and honest to sheltered and carefully curated. We are all managers of a brand now, our own. The rise of online shopping, delivery and appointments had limited even casual interactions (as an introvert, I am not complaining).
Palm Springs looks at this isolation and expounds on it, looking at the ways people react to feelings of hopelessness. They explore three main reactions. Those living in an angry denial of what is happening. They don’t want to acknowledge the risk/awfulness, they are angry at the limitations that exist, and they are ready to fight with anyone who they deem responsible/deem responsible anyone they can fight with. There are those who simply withdraw. They sadly accept the monotony, unwilling and unmotivated to push for hope and solutions. “This is just how it goes” (this is where I tend to fall unfortunately, my pre-existing depression and anxiety prove to be very challenging to overcome in this environment). Then there are those who won’t stop fighting. They push to “Science the hell out of it” as the movie says. The will not rest till they find a solution they can live with. I am not really interested in condemning any of these approaches, and neither is the movie, frankly. The movie takes an honest and somewhat sympathetic look at all of them and allows their characters to work through their approaches and weaknesses in a search for catharsis. We can’t help how bad things make us feel. We can only help how we handle those feelings. Each character grows out of a bad place to find what they need. Sadly, in the real world, people aren’t always able to do that. I don’t mind having hope that I can, however.