Monday, July 20, 2020

Fear and Self-Loathing in PALM SPRINGS

by Rob DiCristino
Max Barbakow’s new time loop comedy is a poignant allegory for mental illness.

Major Palm Springs spoilers ahead.

1. Wake Up

“You gonna be happy? Are you gonna be smiley?” she asks. “Will you kill me?” he asks in return. She’s Misty (Meredith Hagner) — perky, plucky, and oblivious. He’s Nyles (Andy Samberg) — Dejected, hopeless, and alone. Misty is cheating on Nyles, but that doesn’t matter right now. It won’t really come up until way later on, and even then, it won’t matter much. Nyles knows. That’s not why he’s upset. Nyles and Misty don’t even like each other. They’re not the point. There is no point, actually. Nothing matters, as far as Nyles is concerned. Every day is the same. No, literally: Every day is the same. Nyles is stuck in a time loop, living November 9th over and over again for at least a couple of years, now. He wakes up every morning next to someone he hates as she prepares for the wedding of Tala and Abe (Camila Mendes and Tyler Hoechlin), two people who will definitely stay married forever and — as Nyles assures a captive reception audience later on — definitely do not look like siblings. Nestled comfortably in the rustic kitsch of Palm Springs, California, Nyles has resigned himself to riding out eternity with a steady buzz and a wounded heart.

And yes, Nyles has searched for November 10th. He’s tried everything. He’s tried checking his attitude. He’s tried looking on the bright side. He’s tried smiling. He’s made big changes and taken big swings, like when he made a move on the bride during the first dance, or when he did mind-expanding drugs in a bathtub with Roy (J.K. Simmons). Ok, so those aren’t super great examples, but Nyles wants to be better, I promise. He doesn’t like this any more than you do. There are forces in the universe much stronger than Nyles, though, forces that seem to have decided that he deserves to live one miserable day over and over again. “This is today. Today is yesterday. Tomorrow is also today. Tomorrow will always and forever now be today.” That’s what it can feel like. Depression, I mean. Anxiety and preoccupation. Clinicians differ on precise definitions, but it is generally held to be a life lived in the lowest possible gear, an impassable roadblock that brings joie de vivre to a grinding halt. A state of arrested development in which the urge for human connection fades into memory and existence becomes a misery to be managed rather than a gift to be savored.
2. I’m Getting Out of This Day

Enter Sarah (Cristin Milioti), Tala’s older sister, maid of honor, and all-purpose millstone. Sarah hooks up with Nyles because she hates herself, because years of self-destruction and condescending familial concern have conditioned her to settle for less. She hooks up with him over and over again (from Nyles’ perspective, at least), but it never means much to either of them. All he needs to do is flash a little performative empathy, a little self-deprecation. It’s not love, of course. It’s not even like. It’s a coping mechanism, a commiserative ritual that dulls the pain of existence and fills the self-esteem-shaped hole left by a dead mother and a failed marriage. Sarah is not a bad person, though, and despite her cynical deflections, she doesn’t think of herself as a failure. She follows Nyles into the Clandestine Cave of Temporal Anomaly because she cares about him. She’s a caring person. Her mistakes should not define her, nor should her More Traditionally Beautiful Sister’s Socially Acceptable Ambitions reflect a deficit on her part. She’s just living her life, warts and all.

So when Sarah finds herself trapped, yet again, on November 9th, she’s convinced that an altruistic gesture will free her from her metaphysical shackles. She immediately confesses to Tala that yes, she slept with Abe after the rehearsal dinner. Yes, she regrets it. Yes, she knows this will destroy their relationship. But surely that bit of honest vulnerability will allow her to move on with her life. Surely the gods would accept the kind of sacrifice that would alienate Sarah from her nearest and dearest for the foreseeable future and confirm the suspicions of every naysayer who has ever spread gossip about her. “Selflessness is’s fantastic,” she smugly tells Nyles after the fact. It’s freeing, right? That weightless confidence that comes with knowing you have done absolutely everything you can to affirm your membership in the human collective. A person is virtuous because they tell the truth, after all, and truths are always recognized and transgressions are always forgiven by those we love. Right? No, as it turns out. Not at all. “Didn’t work! Life is meaningless! Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Sarah shouts at a bleary-eyed Nyles on her next November 9th.
3. Happy Millionth Birthday, Dipshit

So, what do we do? How do we grapple with the infinite nature of our interior nothingness? How do we change in a world that has damned us to stay the same? How do we force ourselves to rise from a bed to which we’ll inevitably return? How do we form bonds with people who won’t remember us tomorrow, who won’t even experience tomorrow in the same way that we do? We turn into the skid. We embrace the chaos. We learn elaborate dance routines and give each other jail yard tattoos. We crash stolen airplanes and plant bombs in our sister’s wedding cake. We fuck around with people who have wronged us. We bite the hand that feeds. That’s what Sarah and Nyles do, anyway. It’s all meaningless, isn’t it? Why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t they drink too much and have sex with strangers? They didn’t ask for this curse, and no one has the tools to deal with it, so what the hell? Neither has any significant footprint on the universe. Neither has any reason to believe that help is on the way. In a life robbed of forward momentum, what is there but unbridled hedonism to numb the pain?

But even that gets old. The buzz eventually fades. The music eventually stops. The skid eventually leads to a crash. Pretending not to care will get us to the morning, but that doesn’t help us if the morning is always the same. For Sarah, that morning finds her back in Abe’s room. Alone. Listening to him shower. Literally face-down in the evidence of her shitty behavior. Without proper distance, it’s impossible for her to heal. It’s impossible to move on. That’s one thing that people with more conventional emotional regulation (or in Palm Springs’ case, a linear experience of time) tend to forget: The shadow is always there. It’s not situational. It’s not a feeling that passes. Sarah and Nyles wake up under the weight of their affliction every day and can only hope to manage it, and it’s not long until those management mechanisms become toxic and self-indulgent. That’s Nyles, who’s been in the loop so long that he’s lost the desire to leave it. What was at first a horrifying upheaval of his expected life path has become a security blanket, of sorts, a Sunken Place in which nothing can hurt him because nothing feels meaningful.
4. Find Your Irvine

Despite that comfortable apathy, there is a fly in Nyles’ ointment: Roy, the first person he trapped in the loop. Roy came to the Schlieffen wedding hoping to break through his own apathy, searching for freedom from the suburban ennui so common to those of his social stature. “Confucius said marriage is a bottomless pit of sorrow that makes you forget who you are,” he tells Nyles on the first November 9th (“He did not,” Nyles responds). Initially conflating Nyles’ early time loop frustration with his own boredom, Roy recruits the younger man for a round of drug-fueled debauchery that leads them to the Clandestine Cave of Temporal Anomaly. Like Sarah, Roy didn’t know what going into that cave will mean for the rest of his life. Like Sarah, Roy blames Nyles for getting trapped on November 9th for all eternity. Unlike Sarah, though, Roy takes periodic revenge on Nyles, oscillating between methods of torture and ridicule that keep Nyles on his toes. He doesn’t strike every day (unlike Nyles, who wakes up at the wedding resort, Roy wakes up miles away in Irvine), but he does it often enough that Nyles is always wondering when his past mistakes will (sometimes literally) bite him on the ass.

But it’s only by reflecting on his own self-imposed tortures that Nyles comes to recognize the real source of Roy’s anger. When he visits Roy’s home for the first time, he doesn’t see a radical survivalist skinning animals or a mad scientist filling his bathtub with battery acid. He sees a family man. A house. A wife. Two kids. Things are tidy and pleasant. Sure, Roy was a little fed up with this arrangement on that first November 9th. He needed to blow off a little steam. But a short eternity waking up to that same reality has revealed its value: “This was always a good day, here,” he tells Nyles as they share a conciliatory beer. And it was. Because mental and emotional afflictions aren’t just for those with fucked up lives. We don’t earn them or deserve them. They also come to people who do everything “right.” And now, trapped in this infinite November 9th, Roy will never get to see the forest for the trees. He’ll never see his daughter grow up and have a wedding of her own. He’ll never retire. He’ll never take his wife on that vacation they both need. For Roy, walking into that cave was akin to transcendental suicide.
5. Escaping the Box

“We could wake up, and it’s today. We could wake up, and it’s twenty years from now. Or, you know, we could be dead under a pile of rocks.” Sarah’s plan to break out of the loop isn’t great. It’s well researched, sure — she spent what may have been years’ worth of November 9ths becoming a relativistic physicist — but there’s no real way of knowing whether strapping on some C4 explosive and detonating themselves at the precise moment the loop resets is guaranteed to produce a positive result. All Sarah knows is that she can’t keep waking up in Abe’s room. She can’t keep watching her sister marry him. She can’t spend every day at an event that enables self-destructive behavior. She can’t watch Nyles ignore his problems, however much he claims not to be bothered by them. To be clear, though: Waking up on November 10th will not erase her past or rebuild her mental health. It’s not a cure. It’s not a solution on its own. No one climbs out from under rock bottom and stops suffering forever. What it is, though, is a chance at efficacy. It’s an opportunity to take a little control. Many have risked blowing themselves up for far less than that.

Nyles needs some convincing, of course, and it’s only in the final moments of Palm Springs that he admits his fears and faces the reality of his codependency. But neither a dramatic epiphany nor a grammatically-complicated confession will cure him of his nihilism. His love for Sarah doesn’t suddenly make his life worth living. “I hope that blowing ourselves up works, but it’s really irrelevant to me as long as I’m with you.” He’s still a mess. He’s still codependent. He tells Sarah that he needs her to survive. He doesn’t, and thinking that he does is a major problem, but again, Sarah’s plan is a path to efficacy, not to a cure. It’s a support system. “I can survive just fine without you,” she tells him. “But there’s a chance that this life can be a little less mundane with you in it.” Sarah chooses to take Nyles into her November 10th because they can enrich each other’s lives, not because she needs him for validation. That’s not perfect, but it’s a step. It’s progress. It’s proactive. And it’s a hell of a lot better than learning to suffer existence.


  1. I was surprised how much I liked is. I find Nyles' attitude comforting, though he is alone and lonely most of the time. And I totally didn't get choked up at his last speech, err...sentence. Emphatic period.

  2. I just watched the trailer again and cried. this movie got me.

  3. I love your thoughtful take on this, Rob. Very well-observed and beautifully written. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Wow. I wish that every movie could be written about so eloquently. I also was unexpectedly moved by the film. Thanks for writing this.

  5. This a great piece! It definitely enriches the movie even more for me, and I already loved it. Watching this movie, at this time, was like being back in High School and getting the first feeling of profoundness or whatever, something that sounds goofy. I just keep thinking of that feeling I had after watching Eternal Sunshine. The "You gotta find your Irvine" and that whole scene with JK Simmons really got me.

  6. This was indeed the best surprise I have had during quarantine....the sort of film I would immediately buy a copy. Just so I can have it on the shelf to revisit when I feel EXACTLY the way Niles does...why bother? When everyday is the same? It was refreshing to see someone provoke one of these man-boys into action, there is something beyond the neverending afterparty, even if it's the unknown.

  7. Now that I watched the movie (last night), I finally got to read this column and it's every bit as good as I knew it would be.

    Really loved this movie, and your take on it makes me appreciate it even more, Rob. Thanks for articulating why it's so meaningful.