Cinema as we know it doesn’t really exist right now, but this turgid summer has brought with it a few new releases. None as timely, perhaps, as PALM SPRINGS, a romantic comedy in which two wedding guests are stuck reliving the same day over and over again. At least they don’t have to wear masks. In this Groundhog Day for the Trump-COVID era, escape from a repetitive existence is achieved only by a woman's hard work and the breaking of a man’s complacency, and not through moral correction as per usual. Sarah’s (Christina Milioti) due diligence and problem solving—she crams relativity theory and Facetimes a physicist in a bar — unsticks her from the time loop, while Nyles (Andy Samberg) only needs casually fathom the courage to face reality and ride her faux-leopard coattails out of there. J.K. Simmons is on hand to inflict a daily dose of pain, but the film, if you can imagine, does not plumb Sartre’s ouevre. It’s another tale of a man maturing into adulthood at the hands of a woman. Palm Springs may have amused me more had its premise not been reworked so recently, and more successfully, as a pre-teen horror movie and tv show starring Natasha Lyonne.
Existential dread was also the fancy of comedy folk in Forever. Former SNL cast members Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen play a married couple. They aren’t logjammed into a repeating 24-hour cycle, but a quaint afterlife that proves to be its own kind of hamster wheel. California serves as backdrop once again but outfitted with mid-century furniture and clogs. The cancelled show (co-created by one of the co-creators of the Aziz Ansari show) misdelivers on its philosophical stakes, but at least it launched a better argument.
I witnessed more languishing souls in lock down in VIVARIUM. In the sophomore film by Irish director Lorcan Finnegan, banality mutates into nightmare with freewheeling abandon. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisensberg) are trapped in hell, and hell is a residential development in the English suburbs. Upon viewing a potential new home, the young couple find themselves trapped in the unpopulated community of identical boxy look-alikes, Levittown as far as the eye can see. Cottony clouds are suspended from a Crayola sky, the placid cerulean at odds with the characters’ ensuing hysteria. No neighbors and nowhere to go.
Gifted with a mystery box containing a baby and a note: “Raise this child and be released,” their new plight, for a moment, echoes a side joke in The Lobster, which awarded romantic partners infants to resolve any interpersonal strife. Here this foisted parenthood reveals otherworldly origins and begets the film’s heckling critique. The film’s underpinnings, you’ll soon see, take from The X-Files or The Twilight Zone or related sci-fi/horror hybrids and they’re a bit flimsy, even cliche. And yet I’m shaken. The exquisitely creepy offspring (Senan Jennings as the younger boy; Eanna Hardwicke — apparently in Normal People — as the older) ensures your discomfort and the film’s caustic vision only reaffirms my long-held beliefs about parasitic parenthood.