Stuck In A Moment: “Palm Springs” and The Time Loop
I was really looking forward to the time loop rom com on Hulu, the Lonely Island produced “Palm Springs” which, at the least, will make Cristin Milioti. I thought it would blow me away with the oft repeated canard that sheltering at home is a form of time loop forming a backdrop. But it didn’t. It was pretty good but while it had a heart, its mind didn’t seem to grasp the logic of redemption.
The question of which fantasy hits you right and which doesn’t matters as well, “Palm Springs” , to quote Jebediah Simpson, it fails to embiggens the smallest man the way “Groundhog Day” does, it is much more self-interested and in this day and age the Adam Sandberg’s Nyle and Cristin’s Sarah go through their shelter at home and it ends up being a successful Tinder date… only J.K. Simmons’ Roy gets it.
Life isn’t a lesson, it isn’t Junior High on the way to an afterlife finishing school. But our internal life, finding a way to live with imminent mortality, needs more that “Palm Springs” is able to provide. “Palm Springs” finds Nyles in a time loop at a wedding in Palm Springs on November 9th -difficult to access what year, when he accidently includes Cristin’s brilliant Sarah. and how they find love and find their way out.
Time Loop movies… when I was nine years old my entire family was off at a New Year’s Eve party and I was home alone (a different era) probably 1965 and watched the 1945 “Dead Of Night” -a horror time loop movie one part anthology, one part nightmare that scared me to death The loop in “Dead Of Night” returns to the dreamer to the start of his terrible vision… forever. Oddly enough I watched it again decades later and it wasn’t all that… And that was it for time loops movies till “Groundhog Day” followed by the remarkable “Christmas Every Day” and the learn a lesson “Russian Doll”. What they have in common, and what “Palm Springs” misses, is the same day presented from different POVs, it doesn’t have that “Watch out for that first step. It’s a doozy!” moment. It isn’t that I want the characters to learn a lesson, or that Nyles and Sarah necessarily need to find love, but whatever happens needs to happen in relief of what was and that is the failure here.
I thought “Happy Death Day” was better than “Palm Springs” -and there is no lesson there except find out who keeps killing you. Both “Groundhog Day” and “Happy Death Day” are optimistic in ways “Palm Springs” isn’t, the way Shelter At Home as we live it now isn’t, it is the difference between growth and stagnation, what matters and what doesn’t.
Look at it this way: life is intrinsically meaningless because one hundred years of subjective life can not compare with eternity, we don’t have the time to matter. So all that can matter is in this moment, it must be about ourselves. Time Loops are about how experience changes us,the reset button provides meaning where none exists. But if it lacks compassion and empathy it trails off, it trails away into nothingness and time loop pushes you to the center and provides you with an eternity to get it… and get the girl. In “Groundhog Day,” Phil Connors gets out of the loop by building his compassion and thereby gets out of the loop and becomes a not better, better is besides the point, happier man. He finds meaning by giving and becomes happy. Nyles has been in his “Palm Springs ” for much longer than Phil’s 30 years, since he has slept with one woman 1000s of times, and since the seduction takes time, and he has slept with many women, it appears to be a minimum of decades ,and he learns nothing really. Phil grasps to use his time, Nyles doesn’t even at the end, he will always be the same man-child Andy Samberg (in his best performance, admittedly) and never does. It is a waste of an eternal loop. Neither Phil nor Nyles matter even to themselves in the face of eternity. It just doesn’t matter. In Woody Allen’s memoir he writes that he has no artistic legacy, that even Shakespeare is doomed to be forgotten. But Allen finds happiness by the end, at 84 years of age he figures out his life, himself.
Which leads us back to shelter at home. I’ve been here since March 13th, knocking on four months, and in my time loop I am not really learning anything I wasn’t already aware of and yet the texture of my life is different, my body rhythms, my concerns. I read a lot, I’ve become a vastly better cook. I feel more comfortable in my own skin. That is what our time loop is doing, it is changing us and while some of it is horrifying (domestic violence is through the roof, for instance) at the heart of it is, if we are lucky, us stuck in this moment we can’t get out of and becoming more clearly in sync with our behavior and modifying it.
“Palm Springs” deals in a form of American worship of the individual and that is the wrong lesson to take from time loops, the trick with time loops is to fix yourself and, by example, the people around you. We have an excellent example of that with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo -an essentially corrupt man who along with Sheldon Silver’s and Dean Skelos made all decisions for the State in the room where it happened and then shoved it down New Yorkers throats. I met Andrew and he was not a nice guy by any stretch of the language, but his own personal Groundhog -those daily meetings with the press as he got a handle on the Coronavirus, healed him. If you’ve seen pictures of Cuomo as a teenager, he was a brutal looking bully, and trying to save (saving… so far) New York was the exact trajectory we admire in Phil and not in Nyles and Sarah: Cuomo is a personal redemption story as by saving the one he has saved the many (along with his relationship with his daughters). In one of his greatest moments Cuomo claimed that if the choice is between reopening and saving life, he will chose saving life because you can always rebuild an economy but you can’t bring a person back to life. Those words save Cuomo from his worst instincts. They make him more than he was not just in our eyes but more importantly, in his own.
I am a hedonist, the most important thing in life is pleasure and so the only thing we need to do is define happiness. That’s complicated but I have no doubt that Mother Teresa received personal happiness and fulfilment washing poor people’s feet (though I have no idea what poor people got beyond clean feet), Phil got happiness, fulfilment, helping the town people of Punxsutawney, he hadn’t realized how much better he would feel helping others: he didn’t do it because he was “good” (whatever that means) but because it gave him pleasure. The town loves him. The opposite end of the spectrum is Trump, a different form of timeloop, who appears to be the most miserable man on the planet sending out terrible messages, alone at the dead of night. And Nyles who wasted eternity.
The problem with “Palm Springs” is that it isn’t true to the arc of redemption, Cuomo’s life alone makes a mockery of its selfishness. It is a fairly good romcom and that’s a good thing, it is also not what it needed to be.
Palm Springs – B