Palm Springs, in one single creative choice, becomes both an extremely fresh and an extremely limited variation on the time loop scenario: it is the first one of these things that I can name that assumes that we all know what "time loop scenario" means (if you don't, it means "Groundhog Day knock-off"). This means that it doesn't need to waste any of its thankfully concise 90 minutes on setting things up, but can just plunge right into its particular variation on the gimmick, and get to the good stuff. The downside is that the early "what the hell is happening?" parts of the scenario are the good stuff, in that they give us the baseline for who the characters are and how they respond to crises. To put it another way: Palm Springs has designed itself so that it could fast-forward through the very good first hour of Happy Death Day in order to arrive at the slightly boring last half hour sooner.

Second big complaint: by speeding through the exposition, Palm Springs puts itself in a position where it can play around with time loops as a narrative device, but it does this at the expense of not using them as a storytelling device, if you follow my distinction. If you, don't I mean that this feels a little bit more like we're watching screenwriter Andy Siara walk us through how to solve a puzzle, and a little bit less like we're watching the protagonists solve the puzzle for themselves. It's a very clever movie, at the expense of everything that isn't cleverness.

But to return to the upside of all this: it is a very clever movie. The other thing it does to freshen up the formula is to pull a second character into the loop, which ends up providing a new variable for Siara to play with, and it also helps solve maybe the biggest single problem with Groundhog Day: this functions properly as a romantic comedy. That film works beautifully as a character sketch about a man who turns from being an unlikable asshole to a great, warm philanthropist; it hopes we don't notice that the woman who falls in love with him as result of all this has only about six hours of exposure to him not being a giant dick. Palm Springs, having trapped Sarah (Cristin Milioti) in a loop with Nyles (Andy Samberg), lets them get used to each other slowly, alone together in their shared experience, literally the only two people in the universe who can understand each other. The film drops the ball on this somewhat by not making it at all clear how many times they go through the loop together: a few dozen? Several hundred? There is no sense at all of how much time passes here, as it were, which makes it tough to say if we're watching a robust infatuation or a genuine lifetime's worth of connection all packed into a single day - the film obviously wants us to take it as being the second of these, but it doesn't do the work to earn that.

That being said, the film has a lot of moves that work awfully well. The in medias res opening is one of these, finding Nyles gliding through the day of a wedding - his unfaithful girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) is a bridesmaid, Sarah is the maid of honor - with unnaturally perfect timing and presence that we'll only later figure out is the result of months, or even years, of practice. It's honestly only interesting in retrospect (this first and longest cycle is distinctly the least funny and suffers from focusing entirely on Samberg and only bringing in Milioti near the end), but it's bold in the way the film needs to be if it's going to pull us along for the ride later on. And the boldness only amplifies near the end, when out of nowhere Nyles is attacked by a man with a bow and arrows, Roy (J.K. Simmons), who we'll later learn has also been sucked into the time loop with him.

It's all very weird in a pleasantly destabilising way, and it lets us get our feet underneath us roughly at the same time that Sarah does, which provides a nice emotional hook for the relationship that will slowly build between her and Nyles. She's undoubtedly the more complicated and interesting character, and the film benefits from letting her be our anchor after the first trip through the cycle is done, though this seems to be by accident: I don't think it realises she's the more interesting character, given how the last third of the story plays out. Still, working by accident is still working, and what matters most of all is that Milioti and Samberg have wonderful chemistry together, convincingly selling the wariness between their characters as well as the friends-by-default camaraderie that rises between them, and ultimately the romantic attraction. While the script plays around with various themes and repetitions in scene structure, that changing energy between the actors is mostly responsible for giving Palm Springs any emotional shape.

It helps the film significantly that it is, rarely for modern American comedy, well-made. Quyen Tran's cinematography captures the hot light of the California desert (though the film was not shot in the titular location), but not making it flat or one-note along the way. The bright light makes the colors pop, tinting them with just a slight hint of yellow to make this feel more draining than simply paradisaical (which gets into the film's message that romance is good because it helps to have someone you love to get through all of the drudgery of life). Max Barbakow's direction keeps the film brightly-paced, relying on similar but not repetitive set-ups to help shape the changes in the cycles, and giving editors Andrew Dickler and Matthew Friedman something to play with as they construct punchy montages (and the whole film is cut a bit like a montage, with smaller montages within it). It's not a formal masterpiece, but it's thinking about form, and I'll happily take that in a sea of film comedies that are just trying to keep the actors in frame and calling that a victory.

The film's immediate reputation as a instant classic of the romcom genre baffles me, I admit: it would need Nyles to be more interesting and Sarah to get more attention in the third act for me to start thinking along those lines, and having even a single well-developed side character would help a lot (Roy is a particularly obvious missed opportunity). And I do wish it was a bit more interested in the evolution of the character relationship and a bit less in demonstrating what it can do with the time loop. Still, if well-made comedies are rare these days, enjoyable romcoms are even rarer still, and "enjoyable" is the film's baseline. There's room to improve it, sure, but that's true of everything, and not everything has Samberg and Milioti's ironic, wiry performances and chemistry to keep it afloat even when the script isn't operating at 100%.