Quantum Leap: Barbakow Recycles Tropes for Amusing Romantic Comedy Debut
The idea of being stuck in an endless time loop, being forced to endure the same day or moment repeatedly, is hardly a novel idea, explored as it’s been across a wide variety of genres. So, it’s not surprising, and perhaps fitting for Palm Springs, the adult rom com debut from Max Barbakow, now holds the distinction of being the biggest sale ever out of the Sundance Film Festival (holding the distinction by $0.69).
In the comedic realm, Andy Siara’s screenplay unavoidably evokes the classic Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day (1993), but even as it strives for a bit of poignancy in its rendering of a man and woman who, against all odds, kindle a romantic connection under otherwise despairing circumstances, falls short of pushing the limits of irrevocable trauma such an experience would entail. By not taking itself so seriously, Barbakow and Siara are successful in mining its whimsical possibilities, but it’s an exercise frittering away meaningfulness for what, at the end of the day, is merely another quirky romantic comedy selling the same false portraits of what actual connection looks like.
Samberg is quite charming as the hopeless Nyles, though character development isn’t something Palm Springs seems worried about, obsessed as its denizens are with their ongoing plight. Alongside Milioti (reminiscent of an Eliza Dushku), the two co-stars share likeable chemistry and a certain amount of authenticity is apparent in this contemporary take on an old gimmick, with drugs, sexual escapades, and various ways of suicide explored more bluntly and innovatively then what Bill Murray endured in the film’s comedic forefather. But the hellacious potential of this scenario isn’t plumbed realistically, even though it skirts around how pain and trauma would shape these characters’ emotional responses.
The notion of repetition as punishment is a tale as old as time—one only need cast a glance at Prometheus in Greek mythology, his punishment for carrying fire down from the heavens includes having an eagle rip out his liver every day. Or Sisyphus, doomed to lug a boulder up a mountain endlessly. If Alain Resnais developed something profound in 1968’s Je t’aime, Je t’aime, in which a man is doomed to re-experience the same memories over and over again, genre has taken the scenario and run such notions to inevitable conclusions, such as in the Blumhouse title Happy Death Day (2017) and its sallow sequel.
Although it has its fair share of novel moments, and features a solid supporting cast which includes J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, June Squibb and Dale Dickey, expectations are perhaps a bit too high for a film which ultimately has nothing new to say on any front. But our inability to delve into the trauma of this scenario and how it might illuminate our faults with determining the difference between love, lust and romantic connection through a lavishly dressed recycled theme makes one wonder what this mechanism might look like under more austere conditions from a Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier exercise.