Unhappy Wedding Guests Must Rise to the Occasion in Time-Loop Rom-Com ‘Palm Springs’

Life can find people in strange places, something Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) discover in “Palm Springs,” a romantic comedy with a sci-fi fantasy twist. Nyles and Sarah are two thirtysomethings, both wandering somewhat aimlessly through life, when they meet under rather traditional circumstances, at the wedding of Sarah’s sister, Tala (Camila Mendes). However, what starts out as a drunken almost-hookup turns into something else entirely after Sarah accidentally follows Nyles into a time loop.

“Palm Springs” is the feature debut of director Max Barbakow, who developed the story alongside screenwriter Andy Siara. The pair started working on the film shortly after completing an intense two-year program at the American Film Institute Conservatory. “At the end of it, you kind of grow to overthink all your work, the creative decisions you’re making, so the goal coming out of school was to make something without overthinking it,” Barbakow told Entertainment Voice during a recent phone call.

The seed of “Palm Springs” came to the pair during a weekend trip to the desert city in 2016. “After some gambling, some tiki drinks and some adventures out there in the desert, we left with the idea of Nyles as a character, this kind of existential, antihero,” recalled Barbakow.

When we first meet Nyles, he seems like a typical dissatisfied guy who has attempted to fill some sort of void with his younger girlfriend, bridesmaid Misty (Meredith Hagner). However, he wins over Sarah and the viewer when he steps in to make an impressive toast at the wedding reception, saving Sarah from the humiliation of having to make a speech she wasn’t prepared for.

After some more drinks, dancing, and the discovery that Misty is cheating on Nyles with one of the groomsmen, a development Nyles takes in stride, oddly, he and Sarah depart to a secluded spot in the desert to hook up, only to be hunted down by Roy (J.K. Simmons), a man who appears to be a survivalist from another dimension who has beef with Nyles, to say the least. Confused and curious, Sarah follows Nyles into a cave, despite his warning her not to. The next day, she wakes up to discover that she is stuck in a time loop with her new friend (and Roy, we come to learn), destined to relive the wedding day over and over again.

During the next few years following their trip to Palm Springs, Siara got married and Barbakow experienced multiple relationships that didn’t work out. “The writing becomes a kind of creative therapy where we were thinking about all these different notions of intimacy, commitment, the fear of those, and in Andy’s case, the act of getting married, which is such an insanely beautiful, optimistic gesture and very profound, that notion of eternal commitment.”

Nyles and Sarah end up in an eternal commitment of sorts, stuck together in the time loop. As both are used to casual hookups, finding themselves suddenly in an intimate situation with another person leads to much personal reflection and growth. This is a different kind of role for Samberg, and he also served as a mentor for sorts to Barbakow and Siara, as he and longtime collaborators Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, the trio known collectively as Lonely Island, co-produced “Palm Springs.”

According to Barbakow, Lonely Island was already an inspiration to him before he worked with the guys. “Their energy of coming up together and collaborating and making stuff that was very much fueled by their friendship and a shared perspective of the world really was similar to what Andy and I were after, so there was a resonance there that I thought was super beautiful.”

Mixing two very different genres, romantic comedy and science-fiction, would be a daunting task for any filmmakers, but Barbakow and Siara, under Lonely Island’s guidance, made it work by committing to telling a grounded, relatable story. “I think what they were relating to was the human thread throughout all the different tonal shifts and genre mixes,” explained Barbakow. “When we were focusing on the human story, it was a way simpler enterprise.”

One aspect of the plot to which viewers can relate, especially those in their thirties, is Nyles and Sarah having to endlessly attend different versions of the same wedding. Sure, most people have never had to go to the same reception over and over, but various nuptials can tend to blend together. “I think we’ve all sat through toasts that drag on and manage not to say too much and kind of turn them back on the person who’s giving the toast in a self-centered way,” Barbakow. “Some of the crazier stuff is actually more autobiographical than you would think. I never got stuck in a time loop at a wedding, but some of the emotional beats within that are very much pulled from life and exaggerated.”

Originally, Barbakow and Siara intended to send Nyles out on his journey alone, but, thankfully, during development, they realized he needed a partner, not just to break him out of his endless pattern of drunk shenanigans and meaningless sexual encounters with the same group of people, but also to challenge him and get him to open up. Recalled Barbakow, “Sarah came along just because we needed someone, initially, to jumpstart the emotional story, and she still is the emotional catalyst of the movie. We’re experiencing this story through her, and the Nyles character is super passive… They have a lot of the same shame; they just express it in different ways and deal with it in different ways.” 

Milioti, an actress who has built up an impressive resume over the last several years, but for whatever reason is not a household name in the same way Samberg is, gives a similarly mature and nuanced comedic performance as cynical Sarah comes to terms with some of her past mistakes. Not only that, she’s one who takes action when it comes to figuring out how to get out the loop. Her search for answers takes her to a familiar place, YouTube, where she devotes herself to the study of quantum physics, watching videos of real-life physicist Clifford Johnson. “He was very helpful in terms of hammering home a logic that makes sense,” said Barbakow of Johnson, who also advises on Marvel films.

Next up, Barbakow is set to direct “Good Bad & Undead,” an action adventure featuring two “Game of Thrones” favorites, Peter Dinklage and Jason Momoa. “I can’t talk too much about it, but we’re working on the script now and it’s going to be a very fun movie that has some poignant stuff that sneaks up on you. Similar to ‘Palm Springs,’ it takes a genre and leans into that, but we’re going to be subverting some of those expectations in fun ways, and it’s really going to put those two dudes at the center. It will be a fun buddy comedy in a pretty batshit world.”

 “Palm Springs” begins streaming July 10 on Hulu.