It’s been almost 30 years since Bill Murray lived life on repeat for his sins and our enjoyment, but the Groundhog Days are still coming. It can leave a fan of that ’93 classic feeling a bit like Bill himself, forever waking to “I Got You Babe”: Wait, haven’t we done this before? Yet for every dozen inferior iterations of the Phil Connors self-improvement plan, along comes an inspired one. Palm Springs, which devises a romantic comedy of déjà vu routine for Andy Samberg (an SNL alum, just like Murray), won’t make anyone forget the wonders Harold Ramis worked with essentially the same premise. But like Edge Of Tomorrow before it, this latest variation does find ways to build on, rather than simply recycle, the pleasures of its inspiration. And it turns out to be something kind of special in its own right: a modern rom-com that’s funny and inventive and sweet and totally mainstream and a little deranged all at once.
One of the film’s cleverest choices actually comes from an early draft of Groundhog Day: The movie opens in media res, with the cursed already trapped in time’s amber. In Palm Springs, Nyles (Samberg) wakes up every morning to find that it’s still November 9, the day of the wedding he’s come to the desert of California to attend. He’s there with bridesmaid Misty (Meredith Hagner), who’s cheating on him with one of the groomsmen. Not that this, or anything else, bothers him much. Cracking a beer during the ceremony, wandering the reception in an informal short-sleeve shirt, Nyles clearly has no fucks left to give. He entertains himself mostly with his godlike omniscience, which he sometimes uses to seduce his fellow wedding guests. Early into the movie, he performs a carefully choreographed routine on the dance floor, anticipating and incorporating the impromptu moves of everyone in his radius.
This is the first hint that we’re back, conceptually speaking, in Punxsutawney. We learn the familiar nature of Nyles’ predicament at the same time as Sarah (Cristin Milioti), black-sheep older sister of the bride, who goes into the desert to fool around with Nyles and ends up getting sucked into the same astrophysical anomaly that turned his life into a skipping record. This wrinkle in the formula, making Groundhog Day a shared ordeal, allows Palm Springs to have its cake and eat it too—to explore its scenario from the perspective of someone new to the nightmare and someone who’s been going through it so long that he can’t remember anything about his life before the wedding. It’s an irresistible dynamic, pitting Samberg’s sardonic resignation against Milioti’s panic and denial and outrage. “Can we just skip this stage?” he sighs when she first steers into oncoming traffic as a futile escape attempt.
Some of Palm Springs is bawdy, and some of it is surprisingly dark. There’s a subplot about another wedding guest who Nyles accidentally pulled into the loop—a distant relative played by J.K. Simmons who periodically shows up to torture and kill the dipshit who ruined his life. He’s like Elmer Fudd to Nyles’ Bugs Bunny, except that Simmons doesn’t play the character like a cartoon, exactly; his rage and sadness are real, and he gets one rather touching monologue about the silver lining of never reaching tomorrow. Palm Springs understands that being stranded at a wedding that won’t end, with the bad speeches and sappy traditions, would be a special kind of hell—especially for someone with only a loose connection to the happy couple. (There’s a very funny running gag about no one knowing Nyles even though he knows all of them very, very well.) The script, by Lodge 49’s Andy Siara, has some fun deviating from the Groundhog mold, raising and then refuting its moral solutions.
The film works, too, as a love story—it’s charming but not too saccharine, in part because Samberg and Milioti make their characters’ cynicism feel genuine, and not like an artificial obstacle on the way to head-over-heels. (Getting eternally screwed by a glitch in time’s matrix would probably reinforce your spiritual skepticism and alienation.) You wonder, briefly, if Samberg can really play a romantic lead—as a comic actor, he still leans heavily on a grinning overgrown-kid quality. But director Max Barbakow, in his feature debut, finds some melancholy under the star’s amiable doofus routine; through the lens of his winning performance, the time warp begins to look like a garden-variety rut, the kind you fall into to close yourself off from happiness. And, blessedly, Palm Springs doesn’t turn Milioti into his manic-pixie salvation—her Sarah is as screwed-up by her bad decisions as Nyles is. If the film improves upon Groundhog Day in any respect, it’s in the chemistry between its leads: This is a true duet, putting its temporally imprisoned characters on more or less equal footing, with Milioti expressing a screwball agony—a hilarious existential desperation—Andie MacDowell certainly wasn’t afforded.
Of course, Groundhog Dog was, by design, basically The Bill Murray Show, and it operated splendidly on those terms; the romance was less crucial than what it spurred: Phil’s transformation from a signature Murray wiseacre into an enlightened human being—a karmic attitude adjustment that, miraculously, never turned preachy. Palm Springs, like just about any Groundhog offspring, doesn’t have as rock solid a backbone as that. (It doesn’t help that it gets a little hung up on the pseudoscientific logistics of the loop.) But the film puts its magical conceit to smart use, deploying it as a multi-purpose metaphor for a long-term relationship: Once they’ve become co-conspirators in time-killing mischief, Nyles and Sarah basically carve out their own little reality—it’s a fantastic expression of that feeling of being the only two people in the universe, the only ones that really get it. The flip side, of course, is that monogamy can leave you feeling stuck, living the same day over and over again, with only your significant other for company. That the film can touch on all that while remaining a breezy delight is a testament to its charms—and reason enough to go once more around with this perpetually repeated premise.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Sundance Film Festival.