Last weekend, two would-be blockbusters arrived on competing streaming services as an inadvertently timely unlikely double feature. In very different ways both Palm Springs (Hulu) and The Old Guard (Netflix) capture something about living when the passage of time loses all conventional meaning. Mild-to-moderate spoilers ahead.
The Old Guard (2020 | USA | 125 minutes | Gina Prince-Bythewood)
Charlize Theron leads a squad of immortal mercenaries who convene every few decades for rounds of drinks and violent do-gooding in The Old Guard, Gina Prince-Bythewood adaptation of the Greg Rucka comic. While not exactly superheroes, the international cast (including Matthias Schoenaerts, a haunted whiskey swilling Civil War veteran; and Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli as a cute pair of lovers from opposite sides of the Crusades) have the exceptional competence, easy shorthanded rapport, and dry gallows humor of friends who’ve been killing together in the name of justice over countless centuries. Sure, they get shot, maimed, and killed, but they usually wake up a few minutes later and live to fight another day, all while keeping these special abilities out of the public eye. For their latest reunion Chiwetel Ejiofor convinces them to get back in the game for a very compelling cause, the mission goes sideways, and the gang finds themselves on the run with a Marine played by KiKi Layne (a hard turn from her role in If Beale Street Could Talk) who’s not entirely pleased to be along for the ride.
With plenty of thrillingly violent globe-hopping setpieces featuring hand-to-hand combat, gunplay, and explosions, Charlize Theron remains infinitely credible as an immortal kicker of asses whose untold years on this awful planet have earned her a degree of nihilism, epochs of regrets, plenty of steely wisdom, and an uncanny knowledge of baklava. Maybe even more impressively, relative newcomer KiKi Layne more than holds her own in sharing — and occasionally even stealing — the spotlight. Their initially uneasy but growing rapport becomes the film’s foundation and forum for serious reflection on how perspectives warp when faced with an infinite number of yesterdays and tomorrows in a world that just seems to get worse despite your best efforts.
Once you can get past some of the Comic Book Clunky dialogue, one-dimensional villains (like a dweeby techbro CEO who’s still wearing hoodies under his suits), some highly boilerplate motivations (all of the usuals: dead kids and wives, profits, prizes), and overreaching music video cues that try for too much sentimental heavy lifting, the otherwise well-realized movie is a great deal of fun. Prince-Blythewood has a deft touch with the material: backstories are shrewdly revealed, plot twists manage to surprise, and the cast gives their characters more depth and charisma than they probably deserve. It’s a welcome summer diversion — smart but not brainy, grounded but not sappy, and an easy end-of-day watch, especially in the midst of a time when our own days have started to feel like forever.
Palm Springs (2020 | USA | 90 minutes | Max Barbakow)
Whereas the immortals of the Old Guard are unmoored from the human consequences of time, characters in the Sundance breakout comedy Palm Springs are (spoiler, I guess) literally trapped within a single day. As Nyles, Andy Samberg is awoken by his girlfriend on the day of her best friend’s wedding. Aside from a quickie going awry, his day is blissfully carefree: nothing in the way of wedding prep, and just like Charlize & company he passes the hours with drinks always in hand (cracking open cans of beer, single-handedly, with a well-practiced ease), saves the day with an impromptu toast (delivered in luau casual amid the other buttoned up guests), shrugs upon the discovery of some infidelity, and charms the reluctant maid of honor (Sarah, played by Cristin Milioti) with preternatural timing navigating the dance floor. It all culminates with a desert dalliance under the stars that takes a bizarre and shocking turn, but otherwise, a solid day at what might’ve been a terrible wedding. And then he wakes up and does it all over again.
Though director Max Barbakow owes an obvious debt to Groundhog Day, transplanting themes of the time loop classic to the candy-colored Mojave (if you don’t yet have a pizza raft, you’ll have one ordered before the credits roll), he enlivens the format by daring to ask what would happen if Bill Murray hadn’t been riding the repetitive merry-go-round of a day all by himself. Having more than one person stuck in the machine changes the whole game from isolation solitaire to wondrous three-dimensional chess, with ethics of a universe without consequences, interpersonal dynamics, and the particularities of what happens when one of the players is far more interested in escape than the other who’s learned to suffer existence by embracing the fact pain is real, but nothing really matters.
The pacing by which the rules and backstory are meted out is impeccable. Between them and Andy Siara’s astute script, easy to find yourself invested in the fates of these time-displaced travelers. Through stretches of cute montages of capers and antics, Nyles and Sarah veer toward self-discovery and are are eventually forced to confront the emotional and practical consequences of what happens when their interests fall out of alignment. Samberg is an affable screen presence and Milioti makes for a wonderful sparring partner, bringing more baggage and less resignation to her stay in this particular Hotel California.
It has the feeling of an instant classic that obsessives will be able to re-watch (and re-watch) to marvel in how everything checks out and delight in some of the details. One “fun” one: the story takes place on November 9, 2016, an improbable day for a destination wedding, but one that feels extremely emotionally accurate. I expect that by now, fan theories, timelines, and diagrams of one grammatical nightmare of a sentence are already fodder for the people of Reddit.
Yes, it’s thought-provoking and heartwarming, but more importantly it’s genuinely funny, sweetly romantic, and unfolds with cleverly efficient storytelling. Palm Springs probably would have been one of the year’s more charming comedies regardless of the pandemic, but being streamed into all of our homes in the midst of what feels like a futile time loop of endless numbered lockdown days somehow makes it all the more special.
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