These days, it’s not enough for a funny movie to be funny. To find mainstream success at the box office, a comedy has to either be an event movie, or so funny it becomes one. Which brings us to The Lonely Island, which is a creative comedy team that has put out two funny movies to date: Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Neither was a big hit at the box office, but they did accumulate loving fans over time, outside the studio system. If their newest and best comedy so far, Palm Springs, can’t become the box office hit it deserves to be, then you really have to wonder what can?
Unlike its predecessors, Palm Springs is a romantic comedy, and even though it has that same absurdist humor dripping all over it, the film actually takes itself a little seriously at times. Lonely Island co-founder Andy Samberg stars as Nyles, who wakes up on the morning of a wedding where his flighty girlfriend is a bridesmaid. But for some strange reason, Nyles has a bizarrely calm nihilism breezing out of him. He coasts through the wedding minutiae without a care in the world and with profound confidence, and he quickly sets his eyes on the sister of the bride, Sarah, played by Cristin Milioti.
He quickly charms Sarah, the black sheep of her family who can’t seem to make the wedding go down smoother with a full glass of red wine. Just as the two connect, events transpire to turn this run-of-the-mill rom-com into an unconventional, time-bending love story that is thoroughly funny and even a little moving…especially for a movie made by The Lonely Island.
It’s best to experience the early twists of Palm Springs without knowing what kind of movie it really is. So for now, it should be enough to say that indie director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara have successfully evolved a familiar set of tropes inside a particular comedic premise you’ve seen before with a lot of new ideas and surprises. That doesn’t make the film any less predictable or schmaltzy in its presentation, but hidden within the recognizable writing is a fascinating layer of existentialism, allowing the audience to participate with the film’s central questions about the feeling of being stuck in a life you consider meaningless.
Palm Springs has far too much charisma and underdog spirit to go unnoticed. Like 2018’s Game Night, it’s the rare comedy that works just as hard making you laugh as it does making you care about the characters involved. Samberg in particular has to pull off a difficult performance, because on paper, his character should be hard to root for as we learn more about some of the things he’s done in the past. But compared to his last few films, Samberg is more likable and seems to be drawing from his excellent work in the TV show Brooklyn Nine Nine, where he’s still a wacky, funny guy, but he’s also in control of his scenes without overshadowing everyone else.
The film’s secret weapon, however, is Milioti, whose previous roles have consistently relegated her to the background. It’s about time she’s been given a more challenging and engaging character like this, because she’s both hilarious and wonderful to watch as this woman in crisis, constantly making unpredictable choices that help maintain the film’s high energy. There’s a real electricity between her and Samberg when they’re in full steam, though the film can get a little heavy-handed when trying to justify their mostly effortless chemistry.
Overall, Palm Springs is a true gift of a comedy with real potential to become fondly remembered for years. It’s not the most visually stunning or exquisitely-crafted film you’ll see this year, but it might give you one of the best experiences you’ve have at the theater in quite a while. It really is impressive to see a comedy with this much unassuming, laid-back charm also come packaged with a deep affection for both its characters and its audience.
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