Talking about the current state of romantic comedy as a film genre would inevitably lead to assessments about its decline or obsolescence. Many seem ready to agree that this genre suffered from low-quality (and low quantity too) for more than a decade. Gone are the golden days when this kind of films had enough power to transform actors into superstars (Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan leading the way), giving critic credibility to their most noteworthy authors (from Nora Ephron to Garry Marshall), and even get instant acclamation when they were released (from ANNIE HALL (1977)to FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994)).
So we can agree that nowadays romantic comedies are not as much appreciated as once were. The genre always has its detractors and skeptics, but this time is hard to find anyone willing to defend it. Not everything has been sterile if we allow some reconsideration. Here and there you can find a new film by Judd Apatow or Nancy Myers that managed to work, or radically different propositions using the romantic comedy as an opportunity to reflect representation and diversity. THE BIG SICK (2017), LOVE, SIMON (2018), and CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) were pleasant surprises in that regard. However, those movies were considered more as individual cases than promoters of a renaissance for the genre.
In this uncertain landscape for the future of the genre, PALM SPRINGS (2020) is presented as the most recent candidate for the title of “savior of the romantic comedy”. It is also an impressive directorial debut for Max Barbakow delivering a star-vehicle for Andy Samberg (a comedian who has been luckier in television than cinema) and a fresh approach that mixed romantic comedy with elements of science-fiction or fantasy (depending on what you think about the supernatural phenomena represented in the film). During its run for Sundance Film Festival, Barbakow’s film broke the record for the highest sale from a film released in Sundance after Hulu and Neon acquired rights for its distribution. Admittedly, this was a crowd-pleaser with the potential to be a smash hit in theaters, I wonder how things would have been different in a non-pandemic time.
PALM SPRINGS remains a tremendous success- whatever may be the new standard to judge films in this context- because present an attractive premise impeccably executed. This a film that probably will widely be discussed in the future, right now is better to make vague descriptions to not spoiling the surprises that await new viewers. Nyles (Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Millioti) ended trapped “forever” in a time loop on a wedding day celebrated in California on November 9th. They are the only people aware that this particular day repeats itself over and over again after being sucked by a vortex inside a cave. They had never met each other before until that wedding where they were invited. Nyles dates one of the bride’s best friends while Sarah is her older sister. Every new day they awake in the respective hotel room where they slept the night before. No matter how far they travel, if they kill themselves or have a fatal accident, Nyles and Sarah will wake up again to revive Abe and Tala’s wedding on November 9th. What is the logic behind this situation? How they will escape? Were they the only ones affected? Will they inevitably fall in love after sharing the same suffering? It is sufficient to say that the ride would be satisfying over any answer.
As a comedy about a time loop, an unavoidable reference to compare this film will always be GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) or even 50 FIRST DATES (2004). Thankfully, PALM SPRINGS has enough merits to resist the comparison, and it wouldn’t be rare if achieves similar recognition in the future as a classic. Samberg’s charisma found in Millioti a perfect partner to make adorable two cynical and desperate characters that could have been insufferable in less capable hands. The self-deprecatory humor and the existentialist mood they manifest makes you guess that this would be the kind of people who would never watch a romantic comedy without mocking it. The fact they are also stuck in one of those is part of the joke. In that sense, this movie works as a generational comment about the difficulties of form a genuine relationship over self-pity and selfishness. Now, in the middle of lock-downs and self-imposed quarantines, Barbakow’s film reveals a new layer of depth and relevance. The unbearable succession of days when you can’t distinguish differences from today to yesterday would make you understand better the distressing situation of Nyles and Sarah. Also, you may learn to laugh about yourself for feeling stuck in a time-loop just like them. How many times a film was released in a moment of need that allowed a better appreciation than it would have obtained in a different context? PALM SPRINGS is the quintessential movie for quarantine in 2020.