A hundred years ago back in January, the affable time-loop comedy “Palm Springs” made Sundance history when it was purchased by distributors NEON and Hulu for the largest sum ever paid for a film at the festival. Cheekily adding 69 cents to the previous record-holding $17.5 million Fox Searchlight spent on “The Birth of a Nation” back in 2016, the mega-sale immediately positioned “Palm Springs” as yet another one of those Sundance sensations that was bound to be a theatrical disappointment. It’s always around this time during the summer that the biggest deals from Park City tend to dribble their way into multiplexes, proving that festival hype rarely makes it all the way down the mountain. The trek is especially brutal on comedies. For every “Little Miss Sunshine,” you’ve got dozens of expensive wipeouts like “Happy, Texas,” “Hamlet 2,” “Late Night,” “The Way Way Back,” “Patti Cake$,” “Brittany Runs a Marathon” or “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” all of which sold for $10 million or more before being roundly ignored by audiences.
In a way, the pandemic is probably the best thing that could have happened to “Palm Springs,” a genially mediocre time-killer that feels more at home on your television set than it ever did on a big screen. With theatrical plans scuttled for COVID-related reasons, the film premieres on Hulu this weekend, where its modest ambitions are much more agreeable than if you’d shelled out for tickets, popcorn and a babysitter. (The weird thing about movies on subscription services is how it feels like you’re getting them for free, even though you pay every month.) Watching “Palm Springs” again at home I even chuckled a couple of times, as opposed to back in January when sourpuss here sat scowling with my arms folded in the back row of the sold-out Eccles Theatre while 1,200 people around me laughed and clapped like crazy.
Festival fever is a very real condition, especially at Sundance. You’re freezing and exhausted all the time and the air is awfully thin up there. You’re constantly surrounded by people who are only talking about movies and what they’ve seen so far that they loved and there are big stars hanging around all over the place. I’ll always remember the electricity of being among the first audiences to see films like “Before Midnight” or “Manchester by the Sea,” and what a thrill it is to feel like you’re in on the ground floor for a little piece of film history. I can even understand why the audience gravitates toward so many so-so comedies, as after days on end of watching stuff like “Welcome to Chechnya” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” we could all use a good laugh.
The big-sale comedies listed above all also fall into a stylistic sweet spot where they’re just edgy enough to feel kind of cool but not aggressive or aesthetically challenging enough to alienate the old-money folks who come for the festival’s second half after all the press and industry people have gone home. “Palm Springs” lives in this rarefied space, starring Andy Samberg as an amiable smart aleck stuck reliving the same day at a friend’s destination wedding over and over again for eternity. After much mishegoss with a magic cave, he’s accidentally joined in the time loop by the bride’s sardonic sister (Cristin Milioti) and the two take advantage of their strange circumstances to make much mischief together before finally falling in love.
If this sounds like déjà vu all over again, that’s because the film — directed by first-timer Max Barbakow from a script by Andy Siara — pretty brazenly borrows its premise from “Groundhog Day,” with Samberg even offering sarcastic asides as the film speeds through setting up the story, everybody operating under the assumption that we’ve all seen the 1993 Harold Ramis classic. (Or that we’ve seen Tom Cruise die a thousand times in “Edge of Tomorrow.” Or watched “Russian Doll” on Netflix.)
Back in January nobody could have predicted the sudden poignance of a film about two people trying to find ways to stay sane while droningly identical days drag out in front of them. Lockdown life has added an extra dimension to the early antics of “Palm Springs,” but the film still stumbles unrecoverably for me in its second half, cluttering up a clean premise with all sorts of quantum gibberish about that dopey magic cave and a similarly stranded antagonist (J.K. Simmons) who hunts Samberg’s character for sport. There’s a reason “Groundhog Day” never bothered with this kind of plotty nonsense.
On an episode of Stephen Tobolowsky’s wonderful podcast “The Tobolowsky Files,” the beloved character actor details the making of “Groundhog Day” — in which he played astoundingly annoying insurance salesman Ned Reyerson — discussing how director Ramis refined a wacky, gimmicky script into something simpler and more in keeping with his Buddhist principles. First, he excised any explanation of Bill Murray’s existential prison, removing the character of a witchy woman who put a hex on the surly weatherman. Elaborate set-pieces like one in which Murray gives himself a mohawk and takes a chainsaw to his hotel furniture were scrapped in favor of smaller, more elegant bits of business like the broken pencil that’s back in one piece on the nightstand the next morning. Tobolowsky argues that Ramis’ revisions are why the film endures, narrowing the comedy’s focus to a question of what gives our lives meaning in a world without consequences.
“Palm Springs” is like the version of “Groundhog Day” that would’ve had the witchy woman and the mohawk. When you’ve got J.K. Simmons running around with a bow and arrow and Milotti strapping C-4 to a goat so she can blow up that silly cave, any larger themes the film flirted with are long in the rearview mirror. Potentially interesting character conflicts boil down to Samberg being an immature man-child who needs to grow up and commit to a more serious woman, a boring dynamic that's been exhausted in every Judd Apatow comedy from the past 15 years. These sitcom-scaled performances are suited for the small screen, where I suppose like a lot of streaming titles “Palm Springs” will play perfectly pleasantly in the background while you’re doing laundry, escaping any questions about how something so slight could have set records at Sundance.
“Palm Springs” begins streaming on Hulu this Friday, July 10.