Under normal circumstances, the delightfully twisted rom-com “Palm Springs” would surely have played in theaters. But there is nothing normal about these days, and perhaps somehow the movie gods knew that we very much needed a “Groundhog Day”-ish time-twisting dark comedy about two crazy kids who keep living the same day over and over, right now. (Um, what day is it today? But I digress.)
“Palm Springs,” the debut feature from director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara, first screened at Sundance earlier this year where it sold for a bundle (i.e., a reported $17.5 million). And now here it is on Hulu: Nyles (Andy Samberg, of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) — guest and maid of honor, respectively, at her sister’s trendy Palm Springs wedding — get themselves stuck in a time warp, waking up every morning to the same day. The “Groundhog Day” parallel is obvious, and there’s one shot that’s absolutely an homage to the Bill Murray/Andie MacDowell classic, but “Palm Springs” is its own movie: darker (it’s very R-rated), quirkier, more quantum-physics-y, finding its own way home.
I don’t want to reveal too much here; suffice to say that you may want to rewatch “Palm Springs” immediately upon finishing it, to put the movie’s clever puzzle-pieces together. And to note that, despite a scene-stealing turn by the great J.K. Simmons (whose delivery of the line “We all have an Irvine” almost made me cry), the movie is owned by Milioti. Her enormous eyes (she would have made a great silent-film ingénue) register disappointment, dismay, fury, puzzlement, sly screwball wit — and, ultimately and wonderfully, something warmer. “Palm Springs” is the oddest of love stories, but maybe it’s all the more moving because of it.
Elsewhere in the land of streaming movies, I was reminded this week that streaming-at-home doesn’t work for every movie; some still cry out for the theatrical experience. Such was the case with “First Cow,” Kelly Reichardt’s acclaimed period drama set in 1820s Oregon. (If the title sounds familiar, that’s because “First Cow” was indeed in theaters early this year; it’s being rereleased on numerous VOD outlets.) Reichardt’s movies — “Certain Women,” “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy” and others — are about finding poetry in stillness, about quiet connection, about the beauty of a river that looks like a flowing mirror.
They are, in short, movies to disappear into, and that’s what movie theaters let us do, far better than our home setups. (Well, my home setup; maybe yours looks like Cinerama. Excuse me while I go get sad about Cinerama.) “First Cow” is about the unlikely friendship between a Chinese-born traveler (Orion Lee) and a sometime fur trapper (John Magaro), who team up to sell baked goods with a secret: They taste so good because they’re made with milk stolen from the region’s only cow. It’s a friendship with few words, and a film with little activity; its action highlight, midway through, is a lovingly filmed sequence in which a heavenly looking biscuit is drizzled with honey, sprinkled with cinnamon and offered like a treasure.
And it’s gorgeous, all the way through, from those glorious biscuits to the lived-in faces of the cast (including Rene Auberjonois, in one of his final screen appearances) to the scenes of rural Oregon, where an owl glows from a branch, and the green seems impossibly bright. But I think I would have watched this calm, deliberate film more happily in a truly dark room (the better to see the many nighttime scenes) and a truly quiet setting; home viewing left me too often frustrated by the film’s subtleties. It may well be a while before any of us see a movie on the big screen again, but here’s a reminder that until we do, something’s lost.