Nyles (Andy Samberg) is a nihilistic dirtbag stuck in Palm Springs for a wedding he really, really doesn’t want to attend, with a girlfriend he really, really doesn’t like. Sarah (Cristin Milioti) is the bride’s sister and maid of honor — and she wants to be there even less. They’re both frustrated screw-ups, unhappy with life and love, and thus naturally drawn to one another.
But when they break away from the wedding for a tryst out in the desert, something goes very wrong, and they find themselves stuck with one another in a way neither expected. Nyles’s lackadaisical, nothing-matters attitude seems like the only way to survive. But maybe there are life lessons to be learned here.
To compare Palm Springs to other movies would be to give away the delightful concept, and I don’t want to do that. But I can say that when the movie premiered at Sundance in January, it was impossible to realize we’d be trapped in its premise by the time it came out in July. It’s a twist on an old comedic formula meant to explore where life’s meaning truly resides, and whether it’s better to take risks in life or just coast along trying to survive.
And it’s a distinctly, cheekily 21st-century version of that tale. Palm Springs set a record at Sundance when Hulu and Neon jointly announced that they’d acquired the film for a very specific sum: $17.5 million ... and 69 cents. (The previous record was $17.5 million.) The irreverent sense of humor inherent in that announcement matches that of the film and the Lonely Island gang, the trio consisting of comics Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, who rose to prominence through their work writing and performing on Saturday Night Live, including classic digital shorts like “D*ck in a Box,” “I’m on a Boat,” and “Lazy Sunday.” They’re also the team behind movies like the 2016 feature film Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.
The trio produced Palm Springs, along with Becky Sloviter, and it boasts some of the same sweet, existential, occasionally rude vibe of their comedic ventures, in a nimble directorial outing for Max Barbakow from a screenplay by Andy Siara (Lodge 49).
But the most prominent drivers are Samberg and Milioti, playing a pair of lost souls who are thrown together in a way that could destroy them both, or help them find a way out. (There’s also a great role for J.K. Simmons, as a man with strange and very specific wisdom to impart.)
Palm Springs is not groundbreaking or quite as compulsively quotable as some of Lonely Island’s previous outings. But it is an oddly perceptive effort, a movie that feels primed in particular for millennial audiences just starting to creep toward middle age who are trying to sort out what life really means, and how best to live it. Zinging between humor and poignance with a lot of charm, it achieves in its most insightful moments what comedy does best: Let us laugh at the world a little, by way of learning something about ourselves.
Palm Springs premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2020. It is streaming on Hulu and playing at select drive-in theaters.