Palm Springs, the Hulu original feature comedy is comfort food for audiences. The movie gives its viewers exactly what they expect: a feel-good romantic comedy in a familiar structure with a couple of surprises and a message that reinforces an optimistic view of the world.
The characters in Palm Springs are the kinds of stock characters that have come to populate romcoms. The leads, Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), are young, attractive and likeable. And as with all romantic comedies, they are in separate relationships when the film begins—though Sarah’s relationship is complicated as we learn in a plot twist later in the film. Nyles’ girlfriend, Misty (played by the never disappointing Meredith Hagner), is vapid, self-absorbed, adulterous, and way too easily dismissed as a serious match for Nyles. Likewise, Sarah’s partner is detestable and completely dismissible.
While it can sometimes feel like a bit of a cheat to see stock characters on screen, they are actually quite necessary. A screenwriter only has about a hundred pages to introduce a cast of characters, set up a plot, and take the characters on a life altering journey. There is scant precious time in a screenplay (as opposed to television) to devote to developing deep, complex characters. Stock characters are a shorthand way of informing an audience of what to expect and how to view character. It reassures us that the world is knowable and that we can sit back and enjoy the film without investing too much energy trying to figure out character motivations. That said, Palm Springs screenwriter Andy Siara could have given his characters some depth while still having the audience root for Nyles and Sarah.
The film’s most intriguing, and perhaps most complicated, character is the archetypal nemesis Roy (an equally never disappointing JK Simmons). Roy is an unpredictable element, who obstructs and upends Nyles’ attempts in love while still having his own journey to enlightenment. This is also where the film’s theme shines through.
Life, like the Groundhog Day structure of Palm Springs, is mostly a broken record. Every day is nearly the same. We get up, we go to work, we come home, we eat, we sleep. The details change a bit from day to day, but ultimately, life is repetition. How do we maintain sanity in the face of this? Roy begins the film in a state of anger. He blames Nyles for his condition and wants revenge. But in the end, Roy finds a form of Zen enlightenment with his condition, which is ultimately the human condition—life is an endurance of suffering, the best we can do is to lose ourselves in the act of living. Roy shares his enlightenment with Nyles.
ROY: I admit, my head may have been up my own ass, I might not have fully grasped what I put you through, but that little hospital stint opened my eyes. Today was always a good day here. Matty tending his dog shit, Jamie in the prime of her womanhood at forty-five. Madison’s gonna draw a family portrait later where we’re all animals. I’m a goddamn grizzly. I don’t have to watch my family grow up to hate me. Can’t beat that.
Roy glances over at Nyles, sensing that the dude is a lost soul at the moment.
ROY: You gotta find your Irvine.
NYLES: I don’t have an Irvine.
ROY: We all have an Irvine.
For Roy, Irvine is not just the beige town that he lives in. Irvine is nirvana. It is being at peace with your existence. We may not be able to control our circumstances, but we can control how we allow it to affects us. This Zen mastery of self and life is where the movie has its biggest impact. In true romcom fashion, it turns out that Nyles’ Irvine is Sarah. In an instant, we are pulled back from the land of philosophical drama to romantic comedy. The ending of the film is crystal clear, and the audience can sit back and cheer on Nyles as he goes to get his Irvine.
Ultimately, the writer’s use of shallow characters is forgivable, and the film is redeemed by its deep reach on theme. What’s your Irvine?
You can read the screenplay online.