"What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?" is Bill Murray’s classic, existential line in Groundhog Day. Though in his case, he’s stuck reliving the same day over and over, his words also encapsulate the endless stretch of February—the repetitive melancholy of late winter days that has now been magnified in the midst of a pandemic that, more or less, keeps us confined to our homes day in and day out. As I weather the lonely pandemic winter, I’ve found myself sinking into the comfort of rom–coms. One corner of this genre has been a specific joy: the time–loop romance movie.
The classic example is, of course, Groundhog Day. It so distinctly defines the genre that it’s obligatorily referenced in nearly every time–loop film and has ingrained itself as its own cultural phenomenon—an analogy to define any vaguely déjà vu scenario. Palm Springs, The Lonely Island’s summery take on the Groundhog Day trope, was the breakout movie of summer 2020 on Hulu. Then, this February, Amazon released The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, another time–loop romance along the vein of coming–of–age teenage love, rather than the cynical angst of single thirtysomethings in Palm Springs. The time–loop rom–com has become a slightly more novel take on the cliché of the classic rom–com, so much so that it might even be developing into a cliché in itself.
The genre retains all the tropes of the typical rom–com: the meet–cute, the quirky best friend, the force that drives the main couple apart, and then the satisfying resolve, where the couple ends up together. But the genre has also developed its own formulaic and classic features. At some point, the characters will likely perform some bizarre, eccentric, and even illegal antics only possible in a universe in which everyone around them has no idea that the day is being repeated—things like elaborately choreographed dance numbers in roadside bars or literally kidnapping Punxsutawney Phil. These fun adventures might even be presented in a light–hearted montage. There’ll probably be some vague, physics–based explanation for why the time–loop occurred, along with a brief subplot in which the characters obsess over figuring it out. The main characters will most definitely ponder the meaning (and meaninglessness) of life. They will probably equate their situation to a purgatory, or hell, where there is absolute certainty about what the next day will bring—but a complete sense of unknowingness about why the same day happens over and over. The main characters will unquestionably fall in love; they will also likely fantasize about their own deaths. At times, the time–loop romance movie is dark. That’s the beauty of the genre: It lends itself to the perfect mix of the campy, ridiculous, and romantic, as well as the deep, philosophical, and existential. It’s the rom–com–cynic’s ideal rom–com.
These movies don't claim to be realistic. Rom–coms are frequently chided for not portraying practical ideals of relationships. But when you add this sci–fi twist, the rules of real–life romance are out the window. It makes the premise the perfect setting for a cheesy romance minus the urge to point out how improbable the meet–cute is. One moment they’re dark and nihilist, the next they’re nostalgic and saccharine. In a lot of ways, a time–bending, otherworldly premise is the perfect setting for the kitschy and unrealistic expectations of a rom–com.
The fantastical setting somehow makes up for the otherwise cliché romance movie tropes and starry–eyed depictions of love we usually see in rom–coms. That being said, this niche take on the rom–com doesn’t solve all of the genre’s problems: We’re still seeing only white, heteronormative portrayals. As rom–coms have made some strides in representation, the time–loop sub–genre still has yet to do so. If we’re treading into sci–fi rom–com territory, why not make it inclusive? The genre has the potential to portray a multitude of stories—even a multitude of serial relationships—in the endless timeframe it sets for itself. Let’s hope it starts to take those leaps in further subverting the rom–com tradition of straight, white relationships—the premise certainly affords it that opportunity.
While there is a certain particularity to the time–loop setting, there is also the wider genre of time travel–based rom–coms too, usually grounded in some narrative of becoming a better person or finding yourself. In films like About Time, The Time Traveler's Wife, and If Only, the main characters are constantly trying to fix past mistakes—the ultimate lesson of each movie being that no amount of effort in going back and fixing these mistakes can actually make the chaos of life as perfect as you dream it could be.
There are the time–loop movies of other genres too, most of which center around the main character reliving their own death, or, near death: Edge of Tomorrow in the action realm, Before I Fall as a sad YA adaptation, and of course, Happy Death Day in the horror canon. Netflix’s Russian Doll even brings the existential absurdism into a full–series interpretation. The premise of time travel, or rather, being stuck in time, is romantic in and of itself, bringing another fantastical dimension to a story, regardless of the genre.
There's a deeply contemplative joy to watching these time–bending narratives in quarantine because life kind of feels uncannily like we're in a time–loop when we're isolated at home, waiting for the pandemic era to pass us by. There’s a fantasy of the idea that you could just exist, with an infinite amount of time to catch up on all of the content, read all of the books, and learn all the answers to that night’s Jeopardy! Isn’t that the dream? To have unlimited, inconsequential time? There’s a lust to be able to fall into those rhythms, where the main characters can anticipate—and even perfect—everything that will happen in a day. The time–loop movies' recursion makes them comforting and highly rewatchable; just as the characters can expect what will happen when they wake up the next day, you can expect what will happen when you rewatch them on a rainy Saturday night.
But of course, the ultimate catch of the time–loop romance is that it must end: The characters are ultimately yearning to get out, to move forward, to escape. It’s a metaphor for grief, for burnout, for depression, and for pandemic fatigue—if you want it to be. Or, it’s just a fun premise to break from the typical formula of the ‘realistic’ rom–com, while still retaining all the fanciful warmth of watching two people fall in love. We take the time–loop romances for what they are: a meta–commentary on the quotidian banality of life and an imperfect—but quite welcome—romantic distraction from that very reality we inhabit.