In our monthly column Laughed to Death, we look at the way comedy and existentialism go hand-in-hand in seemingly unlikely ways. For this installment, Brianna Zigler explores the murky approach to sex when it comes to multiverse theory and time loops in two examples: Palm Springs and 50 First Dates.
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” posits Groundhog Day protagonist Phil Connors (Bill Murray), whose life as an ornery TV weatherman is upended after a trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. There, his coverage of the annual Groundhog Day celebration collides with his own entrapment in a time loop. Reliving February 2nd over and over as karmic punishment for his bleak outlook on life and other people, Phil is eventually able to break free of his little purgatorial pocket within time and space when a shift in his cynical mindset propels him from this existential prison.
But this idea that nothing that you do “matters” within the physics of a time loop is not necessarily true, as Phil Conners comes to understand to a certain degree. What you do technically does not matter when you get to restart each day like a blank slate, but your actions have rippling consequences when it pertains to the various multiverses you’ve now imprinted on. Each day that Phil Connors lives through is another universe that will live on whether Phil Connors lives on in it or not, something that neither Phil nor Groundhog Day itself takes into account within its existential framework. Ultimately, however, this kind of morality play ends up touched upon further in two films: Palm Springs (2020) and 50 First Dates (2004).
They are united in the fact that they are time loop films, which highlight the ethical grey area of forging relationships and pursuing someone romantically and sexually within these loops. The free will of other parties is far more taken into account if not fully extrapolated on — to unsettling effect. In Palm Springs, a slacker wedding attendee is caught in a time loop physically manifested on the earth’s surface. Nyles (Andy Samberg) had discovered a cave near the titular location of the ceremony some indeterminate amount of time ago and wandered in, trapping him on the day of the wedding for all eternity. The plot of the film surrounds Nyles accidentally causing the maid-of-honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him into the cave after they attempt a one-night stand, Sarah thus becoming stuck alongside him in the time loop.
Offering a take on time loops that is far more grounded in reality, 50 First Dates explores the idea of embarking on romantic relations with a person who literally cannot remember who you are the following day. In the film, carefree bachelor Henry (Adam Sandler) becomes enamored with a woman named Lucy (Drew Barrymore), who suffers from a fictional version of short-term amnesia, and whose real life is a time loop itself without her realizing it. The plot follows Henry’s undaunted attempts at maintaining a relationship with a woman who has to reignite her love for him every day and who is often forced to endure traumatic situations over and over. This is all in order for the two of them to reach a point where their affections for each other are wholly reciprocated.
In an essay entitled “Groundhog Day The Movie, Buddhism and Me,” author Stephen Simon interprets the film as one about reincarnation as opposed to cosmic entrapment, writing that Groundhog Day is “a wonderful human comedy about being given the rare opportunity to live several lifetimes all in the same day.” Dr. Angela Zito, co-director of New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, believes the film illustrates samsara, a Buddhist idea that means continuing rebirth. In both Palm Springs and 50 First Dates, there is an obvious theme of change and rebirth for the protagonists. In the former, while Sarah and Nyles eventually escape their loop physically through the application of quantum physics, they come to fully appreciate their burgeoning love for one another and for the precious impermanence of life. In the latter, Henry Roth forgoes his fickle ways after falling in love with amnesiac Lucy, and he learns to be vulnerable and to truly commit to someone.
But the multiverse theory complicates things, according to Lawrence Crocker in an article for Philosophy Now magazine. In the case of Groundhog Day, he writes that, since Phil commits suicide in an assortment of creative ways while he’s trapped in the loop, this means that “in those worlds in which Phil makes it through the day alive, he does not then disappear and physically remove to a different universe.” Furthermore “the multiverse interpretation of the movie carries more metaphysical baggage than does the time loop interpretation. It also has uncongenial consequences for the continuity of the protagonist: in some of the universes he dies a gruesome death.” Crocker goes on to acknowledge that the concept of multiverses complicates his central examination of Groundhog Day, and he chooses to look past it for his particular interpretation.
Thus, this idea of the multiverse is bent a bit in Palm Springs, notwithstanding the fact that both Nyles and Sarah pull a Phil Conners, committing a multitude of suicides out of boredom, apathy, and, in a way, masochism. But when these two people trapped in the time loop are soon forced to reckon with the fact that one of them had sex with the other in a past variant of their endless day, it muddles things even further. While in time the version of Sarah caught in the loop does finally sleep with Nyles as their feelings for one another grow, he reveals to her sometime afterward, in an act of spite, that he’d already slept with one of the many Sarahs he’d met prior — after having told her that he hadn’t. It’s a quick bit of dialogue that vexes Sarah (yet is never harkened back to as the narrative moves on) and calls into question whether it is an act of violation to have had sex with an alternate version of someone when that person has no memory of it.
There is a moment in Palm Springs similar to one in Groundhog Day in which Nyles relates to Sarah, newly minted to life in the time loop, that “nothing matters” now that she’s caught in the loop. However, he takes care to convey to her that, despite the fact that neither of them can die, the pain they experience is still real. “Pain matters; what we do to other people matters,” Nyles reiterates around the midway point of the film, during an altercation between them and another victim of the loop, Roy (J.K. Simmons), where Sarah maims Roy with his car.
Notwithstanding pain experienced by those suffering in the loop, pain inflicted upon those not caught in the loop — such as Sarah’s bride-to-be sister (Camila Mendes), who falls on poolside pavement and knocks out her teeth during Sarah’s first morning in the loop — continue on in their respective worlds. “It doesn’t matter that everything resets,” Nyles desperately explains. “We remember. We have to deal with the things that we do.” The happy-go-lucky nihilism is suddenly shattered in favor of the grim, unethical reality: accountability still exists within a time loop. People are hurt and continue to exist; trauma is accumulated. “Nothing worse than going through this shit alone,” Roy tells Nyles, having made peace with the fact that he’ll never see his children grow up.
In 50 First Dates, there is no magic nor science fiction nor application of quantum physics. Yet, it similarly depicts stunted free will at the expense of one person’s spiritual journey in relation to time loops. In his pursuit to get Lucy to fall in love with him, Henry deceives, lies, and terrifies her day after day as she is forced to reacquaint herself and re-fall in love with this man whom she consistently can’t remember. While it’s technically no fault of Henry’s that he’s fallen in love with this woman, and it’s no fault of Lucy’s that she’s afflicted with such acutely short-term amnesia, the quirky, rom-com narrative ends up coming off somewhat violating in the process.
This is especially true when Lucy and Henry finally consummate their “relationship.” Lucy wakes up the next morning with her memory shot, as usual, but this time a complete stranger is lying next to her in bed. Henry does eventually concoct a video for Lucy to watch every day when she wakes up in order to help her remember who Henry is and how far they are in their relationship, and Lucy begins keeping notes on Henry in a journal of her own. Still, the film’s happy ending can’t quite take away from the unspoken and unsettling fact that once the two got married and had a child together, Lucy must have endured the unending torment of having to wake up pregnant every day with no idea why or how for a few horrifying minutes.
Forcing someone into traumatic and demeaning situations because it “doesn’t matter” is at the crux of the ethical time loop quandary — one that Palm Springs answers, to some degree, quite deftly. Whether it’s knowing that the people you’ve hurt will continue to live on in a universe you don’t inhabit or living with the guilt of having hurt them, there is no such thing as “nothing mattering” in a time loop. And yet, sex, in particular, is treated as expendable in both Palm Springs and 50 First Dates, in favor of forging one’s way out of or through the loop.
Furthermore, the object of sexual desire in both films bears the brunt of this form of carelessness. Nyles lies to Sarah about having had sex with one of her many multiverse versions so that the two of them may peacefully coexist within the loop until they inevitably have sex again. Henry allows his romantic and sexual feelings for Lucy to grow at the expense of Lucy fearing she’s been sexually assaulted or having to re-remember every day for nine months that she’s pregnant in a kind of body horror purgatory. Especially in the case of 50 First Dates, these nagging afterthoughts are cast aside in favor of fulfilling the saccharine rom-com expectations. It doesn’t matter that Lucy is made to experience an endless series of disturbing scenarios that she eventually “forgets” or understands she agreed to. If she no longer remembers agreeing to them, does she really have free will?
In both films, morally questionable sexual situations are presented as something of an unfortunate byproduct of the nihilistically “meaningless” loop. They make far less of an existential ripple than pain, trauma, or guilt yet can hypothetically contribute to the manifestation of all three. But it highlights the degree to which sex and its moral implications are seen as largely inconsequential when applied to questions of ethics and free will in a time loop. After all, Phil Conners took advantage of his loop to try and seduce his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), using each day to become more acquainted with her so that he could manipulate and try to sleep with her.
Like both Nyles and Henry after him, Phil Conners does change for the better, evolving into a selfless mindset that propels him out of his existential prison. Stephen Simon writes that “[Phil] gradually begins to realize he has a greater purpose for being alive and begins to utilize those insights to grow and interact more positively with the people around him.” By the end of Groundhog Day, the time loop is no longer exploited as a tool to satisfy Phil’s egocentric whims, but an opportunity to make peoples’ lives better — even if he were to remain trapped.
All the same, on the path towards men’s spiritual enlightenment, sex and manipulation can be used as a stepping stone towards self-actualization. By the time Phil finally sleeps with Rita, he has already freed himself from the endless day. Rita remembers who he is the next morning and still loves him. Palm Springs and 50 First Dates both beg the question, what if that was not the case? What if Phil was still trapped? What if Rita didn’t remember?