"Palm Springs" and "Murder, She Wrote" are this week's selections
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"Palm Springs" (2020)
Hulu, rated R, 90 minutes
There's been much talk online of how time is passing for all of us since March. The pandemic and quarantine has thrown the society out of orbit, and a consequence of that is every day feeling more or less the same, especially for those of us mostly working from home.
It is a strange feeling to be living in these times and then watch a movie like "Palm Springs," the latest comedy from The Lonely Island crew (though Andy Samberg and the boys didn't write or direct this one; they just produced it). Known for silly yet heartfelt spoofs like "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping" and "The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience," The Lonely Island this time opted to lean on the heartfelt side of things. "Palm Springs," written by Andy Siara and directed by Max Barbakow, is a time loop movie. You know what that means: Someone experiences the same day over and over until they either figure out how to stop the cycle or learn to embrace it. "Palm Springs" puts a clever twist on the genre by daring to add another person stuck in the loop. The effect is a movie ostensibly commenting on falling in love with the mundanity of marriage, but in today's world, it also applies to living with someone you love during quarantine.
Nyles (Samberg) is the one initially stuck in the loop. The movie doesn't bother explaining how he got stuck or how long ago he's been trapped, only implying it has been many years. Enough time for him to forget what his profession was in "the before times." It's not long before Sarah (Cristin Milioti) accidentally gets stuck too, via a hilarious sequence better left unspoiled.
Outside of a few big laugh points, "Palm Springs" is mostly just nice. I was smiling the whole film. Samberg, who usually gives over-caffeinated performances, is more mellow here, and although the big emotional scenes don't fully work — there's a speech he gives near the end that would be better if it fully embraced sincerity instead of trying to be too cute, though this might be the writer's fault more than Samberg's — he's effective as a guy learning he does not have to go though this cycle of sameness alone.
Milioti, though, steals the movie from the moment she's on screen. I had only previously seen her in a few episodes of "How I Met Your Mother," but she is incredibly charming as someone learning to deal with a strange new reality with a strange new man while also reckoning with the things she did (and can't amend) on the day before the time loop. Like it or not, it's the hand she's dealt, and she deals with it the only way she knows how: going stir-crazy with a biting, sarcastic sense of humor.
J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Camila Mendes, Connor O'Malley and Meredith Hagner are all amusing in supporting roles, especially Simmons.
There's a scene about halfway through the movie where Nyles and Sarah venture into the desert and set up camp for the night. They stare at the stars and talk about their future, or lack thereof. It's one of the best scenes in the movie because it encapsulates everything it wants to say so well. Enduring marriage, or quarantine, or a time loop, isn't about the big moments. Everyone has a few of those. No matter how exciting they are, it's the quiet moments that you have to live with every day. If you can't take your significant others' quirks, if you can't sit in a room with them in silence and feel comfortable, if you can't get vulnerable and share your desires and insecurities in equal measure, it probably isn't going to end well. Those quiet moments are where the magic happens — in the case of "Palm Springs," quite literally, as our lovers see something they can't quite believe is real.
Whether it is or isn't does not matter. What does is that they experienced it together, lying side by side.
"Murder, She Wrote" (1984-1996)
Prime Video, rated TV-PG, 12 seasons, 220 hours of content
Every time I watch "Murder, She Wrote," I hear my grandmother's voice.
"Oh no, Jessica," she said to her TV. "What have you gotten yourself into this time?"
I spent a lot of time at my grandmother's house as a child. She wasn't a technology person, so every time I would visit, we would do a few things. We would play Monopoly for hours on end. We would wind up her dozens and dozens of music boxes and let them play their songs. Sometimes I would even dabble on her piano. She would clap whether I attempted to play a lovely melody or smashed my hands on a random selection of keys.
When we got bored of all that, though, we would watch "Murder, She Wrote."
Looking back, watching the show with my grandmother is probably why I'm so into detective shows and films today. It introduced me to the idea of the murder mystery as a concept, and it planted in my mind the appeal of watching things with smart, witty women at their center. Mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, thanks to a star-making performance from Angela Lansbury, is such a delight. She has the tenacity of a bulldog, not backing down from anyone, while also remaining kind and injecting humor wherever she can. She finds trouble wherever she goes and brings it down.
The show remains notable for a lot of reasons. One, there's 220 hours of it (not even counting the four made-for-TV movies that were made). There's nothing going on right now — wear a mask or stay inside, I'm begging you — so you might as well watch a whole lot of MSW. Two, they don't make long-running murder mystery shows starring older women anymore, or any shows starring older people, period. Young people run the entertainment world, and as much sense as that makes, "Murder, She Wrote" is a nice reminder that actors don't become useless the moment they turn 50. (Lansbury was actually 56 when she got the part.)
Watching it now has allowed me to pick up on things I missed as a child, like how most of the older male characters are horndogs toward Jessica. (It's shocking!) There are also wonderful cameos from not-then-famous stars of today peppered throughout the run, like George Clooney and Joaquin Phoenix. Does every episode more or less follow the same formula? Yeah, kind of. I don't care, though. Watching it is like putting on a pair of sweatpants after a long day. It's comforting.
My grandmother died a few years ago. Even before then, as I grew up, my visits became less and less frequent thanks to life getting in the way. Our "Murder, She Wrote" routine got phased out. But when I watch the show now, I hear her voice. I can see her laughing to herself about Jessica dressing down some chump trying to stop her investigation. It makes me smile.
As long as the show is available to watch, my grandmother's memory will live inside my head, and I like that.