Movie Review: Back to “Groundhog Day,” this time set in “Palm Springs”

Better late than never, right?

Yeah, I missed getting a preview screening when Hulu picked up this Neon comedy last summer. But with Valentine’s Day coming up and everybody hunting anew for something romantic to watch, I figured I’d catch up with this Andy Samberg comedy.

Hulu is running a free month trial promotion, so if it isn’t on your streaming menu, here’s a suggestion. Sign up, even if only for February. You’ve got “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” coming up in a week or so. Stream “Framing Britney Spears” if you missed it on FX, “Mrs. America,” “The Great” too. Then see what the fuss was over “Ted Lasso” and hit “Palm Springs” to see if this is all worth sealing the Hulu deal.

We all know Andy Samberg’s game, albeit the tamer TV-friendly version. But it isn’t the novelty of unfiltered drugs, profanity and Samberg masturbation gags that’s surprising in this R-rated riff on “Groundhog Day.”

And J.K. Simmons playing a comical stalker with a grudge? Not much of a stretch to imagine that.

It’s “Cristin Milioti unleashed” that sells “Palm Springs.” We’ve never seen the “mother” on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” this quick, coarse, crude and hilarious. Give a good actress a script that plays to her strengths, and watch out!

Who knew Milioti — she was also in “The Mindy Project” — had a soft spot for gonzo, self-absorbed, bad decisions-loving irresponsible sister-of-the-bride types? She’s found her sweet spot.

The set up — a weekend “destination wedding” in Palm Springs. Nyles (Samberg) is there as “Misty’s boyfriend,” but when we see bridesmaid Misty (Meredith Hagner) submit to his carnal impulse the morning of the wedding, we know they’re done.

“It’s not you, it’s me” or “It’s not me, it’s you.” You decide.

“Hey Misty, will you kill me?”

Nyles is drinking. A lot. The wedding reception has everyone dressed to the nines, and Nyles tipsy in shorts and Hawaiian shirt, swilling one beer (“Akupara” for Google Easter Egg hunters) after another, like he doesn’t give a rip, then grabbing the mike and moving everybody to tears toasting the newlyweds.

He locks eyes with the sister of the bride, Sarah (Milioti), tries to dazzle her by floating across the crowded dance floor, expertly mimicking every dancer he stands next to.

He flirts. They chat. They wander the desert just off the edge of the oasis resort, and that’s when Nyles gets shot with arrows, hunted by the hulking, pitiless “Roy” (Simmons). He crawls to a glowing cave and shouts for Sarah to “Stay back,” and she doesn’t.

Damned if she doesn’t wake up, just like him, the next AM — in the same place she was the day before, only as we see that same day play out, this time it’s from her exasperated point of view. She’s hysterical, furious and cursing, “What did you DO?”

Is he “The Antichrist?” Nah, he’s only fooling about that. But this “purgatory,” or “glitch in the simulation” or ripple in the “indeterminate universe” is something he’s been stuck in. A while. And now she is, too.

Our heroine and hero have the remaining 75 minutes of the movie to make their peace with this pleasant-if-empty existence, find a way to make a suicide stick (“You never die.”) or reason their way out of this time loop, which may be a punishment for who they are, a Hell of their own making, or something a lot more arbitrary.

I love the idea of a shared, hellish “Groundhog Day” joined mid-trap.

Collaborators Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara previously did a short film together, and make their feature film debut with a sci-fi comedy that, like the smartest ones, don’t lose themselves in “why” this is happening. They concentrate on how their characters cope.

The picture isn’t an unending laugh riot, and some parts of its “exit strategy” are clunky.

But a few quick-hit supporting turns register.  June Squib is a grandma hip enough to know what the kids are saying when they mean “Thank-you” these days — “Shukran.” Dale Dickey is a high-mileage honky tonk habitué. And Peter Gallagher plays the father-of-the-bride, condemned to repeatedly ask “Who IS he?” again and again, until that ONE scene where we KNOW he knows Nyles.

It. Is. A. Doozy.

The tone may be nihilistic, but the banter is flip, offhand and funny. Nyles’ toast to the happy couple includes the crack “who do NOT look like siblings,” because they (Camila Mendes and Tyler Hoechlin) do. Kind of.

And as with “Groundhog Day,” little dollops of profundity stop us short.

Life? “Nothing worse than going through this s— alone.”

The nature of time and probability? “What might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present!”

Our leads make a cute couple, and again, Milioti holds her own with Samberg in even the wackiest bits. Of which there are a few.

And maybe Milioti gives the veteran funnyman something back. Thanks to her, a little heart-tugging seriousness makes this budding romance feel plausible in a daft, sometimes raunchy comedy in which almost everything else is implausible.

MPA Rating: R for sexual content, language throughout, drug use and some violence 

Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, June Squibb, Meredith Hagner, Dale Dickey and Peter Gallagher.

Credits: Directed by Max Barbakow, script by Andy Siara. A Neon film on Hulu.

Running time: 1:30

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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