The Millennial Blues of “Palm Springs”




“TODAY, TOMORROW, YESTERDAY — it’s all the same,” Nyles (Andy Samberg) mutters as he lounges on an inflatable pizza in the pool of a Palm Springs resort. It’s the Day of the Wedding — a time that for most “chick flicks” is one of jittery anticipation, fevered preparation rituals, and twinkle-eyed longing. That’s not the case in Max Barbakow’s time-loop comedy, Palm Springs, which opens in medias res, Nyles already trapped in a repeating cycle, comfortably resigned to his dreary fate. Each day, Nyles wakes up in the same hotel bed and attends the same desert-chic, millennial pink-themed event seemingly ripped out of a catalog. It’s a “precious day” according to Nyles’s girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), yet the movie proceeds swiftly and mechanically through the ceremony and reception, dampening the emotional significance of each step that comprises the ritual. Nyles nonchalantly cracks open a beer during the vows — he’s seen it all before. Meanwhile, gloomy sister-of-the-bride Sarah (Cristin Milioti) asks the bartender for a heavier pour, even though it’s mediocre wine. She needs to be comfortably numb to make it through the night. This drab mood is a condition of something far weightier than the fantastical conceit; it signals the existential fatigue and disillusionment of its protagonists. When Sarah is called upon to deliver remarks of her own, Nyles swoops in with a meaningless, feel-good speech that energizes the masses. The phoniness that underlies his words is as much a symptom of a distinctly millennial malaise as the by-product of reliving the same day in perpetuity.

There is something in the predetermined, programmed nature of the wedding ceremony — even when adjusted to create the illusion of idiosyncrasy — that feels antithetical to genuine emotion, matching the feelings of redundancy and pointlessness in our day-to-day reality. In Palm Springs, this dynamic is apparent from the get-go as Nyles eyerolls his way through yet another “precious day” filled with flower crowns, folksy fringe tapestries, and crocodile tears while anticipating all the actions and reactions of those around him. The time-loop conceit certainly captures the faux-authenticity of millennial wedding culture that produces ceremonies that all look the same, but the movie changes the key of past time-loop entries like Groundhog Day and sings the millennial blues by introducing a second person damned to repeat the same day. After a sloppy hookup with Nyles that takes a bizarre turn, Sarah follows him into a nearby cave whose insides emit a psychedelic glow. Here, she accidentally enters the time-loop herself and is condemned to the same day for eternity alongside Nyles. The time-loop thus becomes a mockery of till-death-do-us-part romance, while questioning what romance even looks like for such wretched people: Nyles the nihilist and Sarah the relationship-skeptic.

Worn-out and cynical thirtysomethings, Nyles and Sarah seem to embody recent understandings of the millennial condition. The generation that gave rise to Samberg and his whiplash, go-for-broke style of absurdist humor is, per Anne Helen Petersen’s essay on “millennial burnout,” characterized by chronic stress and overworking. So, too, are they a generation suspicious of the institutions that promised to serve them — the college degrees that leave them mired in debt, the draining corporate jobs that leave them unfulfilled. Millennial couples tie the knot much later than generations before them because marriage is increasingly considered a step one takes after attaining financial independence and stability. Meanwhile, the rise of hookup culture and the popularity of dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr seem to suggest a widespread disillusionment with monogamy. Nyles’s blasé attitude toward his relationship with Misty illustrates such apathy; when he and Sarah sneak up on Misty having sex with the handsome officiant, the cuckolded boyfriend brushes it off as inevitable. Whirlwind romances and shotgun weddings are fantasies of a past proven horribly reckless by the high divorce rates and imperfect unions of their boomer parents. Sarah’s father, Nyles reveals, confessed to his closeted homosexuality and unhappy marriage in one of the day’s many past iterations, and Sarah herself admits to a past marriage that fell apart almost instantly. Traditional markers of adulthood — wedding nuptials, cap-and-gown graduations, corporate promotions — glibly promise love, community, and meaningful progress but, more often than not, offer only their hollowed-out shell.

The very setting of Palm Springs — like Disneyland and Las Vegas — goes down like a microwave dinner. In his fictionalized account of the resort town, The Deer Park, Norman Mailer describes the plastic desert oasis as “a town built out of no other obvious motive than commercial profit.” Mailer’s observation remains true, but what was once the chrome-flecked Babylon of gangsters and New Hollywood debauchery has evolved into a site known for its Instagrammable, boho-chic destination weddings and its proximity to the annual Coachella music festival — in other words, an epicenter of bourgeois privilege, recalibrated for shallow, millennial sensibilities. Palm Springs’s flagrant commercialism and sterile prettiness vest even the most heartfelt revelations with sham impermanence. That makes it the ideal location for a comedy that satirizes and explores the despairs and antipathies of a generation with unusually fraught views on intimacy and romance.

What exactly “millennial” identity entails is often a topic of debate. Ironically, millennial icon Andy Samberg belongs to Gen X, though he made a name for himself with his SNL digital shorts which helped introduce the concept of the “viral” video. Today, millennials are easy targets for members on both ends of the generational spectrum: Gen Z mocks their obsession with Harry Potter and ’90s nostalgia, while boomers rail against their snowflake self-absorption. These stereotypes are, of course, deeply reductive, and lean toward a certain white and upper-middle-class demographic. As much as it seems to be classified as such, the generation is no monolith, nor could it be: they hold trendy destination weddings like the one in Palm Springs and scorn them in one, intragenerational breath. Still, the fascination with the millennial condition and the impulse to generate labels for it persists, most recently in an essay by Lorrie Moore on Sally Rooney’s hit novel Normal People. Here, Moore claims to play devil’s advocate, “reporting” on how millennials seem to boomers as a sort of anthropological study. (The flawed, but concededly amusing missive includes such sweeping statements as “millennials are essentially suburban,” “have no authentic counterculture,” and tattoo themselves because they believe they’ll die young.) But among the generalizations comes a concession: in reference to the novel, Moore writes that Normal People “posits a romance for romantic agnostics, and thus speaks to many generations at once.” Perhaps millennial identity — and generational identification for that matter — is best described as a state of mind, one that, among other things, is constantly grappling with questions of authenticity in a post-capitalist age of ubiquitous screens and brands. When Sarah goes missing one morning, her parents conclude that she left because the day wasn’t about her — a cliché of millennial narcissism. Nyles interrupts and offers a more probable list of reasons rooted in the generation’s sociopolitical realities, its post-9/11 culture of paranoia, its digital anxieties: She’s probably “scared … of families, weddings, intimacy, melanoma, nanotech, round-the-clock surveillance.”

The authenticity of romance itself falls under scrutiny in Palm Springs. Sarah and Nyles must reckon with the possibility that their mounting affections for one another are hollow, while entertaining the possibility that they are real. “What’s the point of living?” Sarah asks in one road-rage fueled scene. “Well, we kind of have no choice but to live,” Nyles explains, who knows that suicide will only start the clock over again (though pain is real, he adds — best to die quick or suffer long hours in the ICU). Once Sarah passes the initial floundering stage of angst, the duo settle into a time-wasting routine — synchronized dance numbers, planting and removing a bomb from the wedding cake, and so on — designed to distract them from both the meaninglessness of the ceremony and the terror of endless repetition. Nyles doesn’t remember how long he’s been stuck in the loop, what he used to do for a living, or why he was dating Misty in the first place, but in Sarah he finds a companion to suffer through the monotony.

When their relationship evolves into romance, Nyles begins to see their shared fate as a blessing. The infinite time-loop here recalls the pleasures of staying home, Netflix and chilling in the embrace of a lover, a means of tuning out the rest of the world, its sundry disappointments and difficulties. For The Baffler, Jess Bergman describes a trend in recent American fiction that sees female protagonists as hopelessly disaffected and languishing, lacking all desire aside from the desire for nothing. The comfort of a deep sleep or a protracted sedation is the flattening of time, wherein all things under the sun lack the power to meaningfully affect. In the case of Palm Springs, what could be better than spending the rest of eternity on vacation with the one you love with no concern for money, calories, hangovers, aging, or death? It would seem to be a magical ideal for those desperate for stability, a time of infinite, primordial “rest and relaxation” to borrow from the title of the Ottessa Moshfegh novel that Bergman cites as a prime example of “denuded realism.” Bergman delineates this approach as a “repudiation of the idea that we can mean anything to the world — or each other — at all.” Shorn of its textures and its potential for true meaning, a time-loop relationship has a similarly lobotomizing function; it is companionship as a bare minimum response to solitude, love whittled down to its capacity to merely sustain.

But it’s different for Sarah, who rejects Nyles’s passivity. She rises each day in the bed of her sister’s soon-to-be husband, forced to repeatedly confront her own treachery, and the ugly fraudulence of the nuptials about to take place. True love, as experience and her own deeds prove, is a dubious proposition. Even her nascent romantic feelings for Nyles are stifled by a secret, nagging guilt which she is condemned to relive ad nauseum. Unlike her companion, she is unable to surrender to the blissful meaninglessness of the time-loop, because she is reminded every morning that her actions have rendered so terribly absurd the entire day and its romantic ambitions. Within her cursed situation, Sarah is denied the tools of repression and willful ignorance that breeds Nyles’s complacency. For better or worse, she is compelled to confront her complicity in her own broken, bogus reality.

¤

Groundhog Day, the rom-com time-loop movie progenitor, offers a distinct generational portrait that contextualizes the innovations of Palm Springs. Bill Murray’s cynical, elitist Phil is a direct response to the era’s culture of competitiveness and narrow-minded notions of success. After spending countless days in Punxsutawney, he eventually realizes the kind of liberation the provincial town might offer from his egotistical, career-oriented agenda. Unintentionally, he transforms into a different kind of man, a man with whom his co-worker, Rita (Andie MacDowell), falls in love. Self-cultivation for its own sake, the voluntary performing of good deeds, and community empowerment are all coded as meaningful small-town values against individualistic, metropolitan ones. Once these values are internalized as the key to enduring happiness, Phil is awarded his freedom and allowed to move forward into the next day.

Palm Springs seems to pick up where Groundhog Day leaves off; if the latter employs the time-loop as a reeducation tool that unlocks a domestic happily-ever-after, the former repudiates those lessons through its resourceful female protagonist. “Is this a karma thing?” Sarah wonders, hoping a selfless deed will grant her freedom. But none of her willingness to right her wrongs or grow as a person have an effect — misfortune has senselessly, randomly befallen her. What she does know is that her own mistakes haunt this reality, making it utterly unbearable to her despite its illusion of freedom, its excesses and soothing tranquility. There’s a third person damned to repeating this fateful wedding day, Roy (J. K. Simmons), a boomer man whom Nyles once drunkenly led into the magic cave. Thanks to Nyles, Roy will never see his children grow up, never walk his daughter down the aisle. His every day starts out in bed with his wife in the suburbs, though he occasionally shows up to Palm Springs to let off some steam and torture the younger man. Roy, like Murray’s Phil a few decades down the line, settles into the picturesque amber of parenthood and suburban domesticity — idealized, but often undervalued, by those of his generation. For this boomer man, happiness is achieved through peace and self-acceptance, whereas Sarah intuits it cannot be so simple.

Crucially, Palm Springs homes in on two people with disparate attitudes toward their state of infinite repetition; one who welcomes its womb-like comforts, the other desperate to break free. Sarah’s desire to escape the time-loop is presented as feverishly desperate, yet it is implicitly applauded as the choice that rightfully embraces risk as fundamental to human thriving. Existence beyond the time-loop in Palm Springs is one of uncertainty, the condition not only of modern life but of true romance, which demands vulnerability. Of the recurring pool motifs in the paintings of David Hockney, Leo Rubinfien once wrote that “the swimming pool, or its rippling, glistening water […] stand[s] metaphorically as a way in which people construct their own paradise.” In the final shot of Palm Springs, Nyles and Sarah are seen — yet again — drifting on inflatable mats, the pool water shimmering against the tawny desert backdrop. Outside of the time-loop, the possibilities are truly endless, pregnant with ambiguity and meaning.

¤

Beatrice Loayza is a writer and film critic based in Washington, DC.

 

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