It was 2003 when I first stumbled across the The Lonely Island. Their rib-tickling send-up of soapy MTV teen dramas ‘The Bu’ played top billing on Channel 101, an off-color, online shorts fest where hungry filmmakers featured their work gratis for weirdos like myself to ingest. Credit Frazzles the Squirrel (and his unfaltering demand for removing and reapplying one’s 3D glasses) for inviting those curious few to investigate these Lonely Island boys down a certifiable rabbit hole of YouTube oddities starring Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer. Preeminently awkward shorts from the Lonely Island trio included such deadpan standouts as ‘Just 2 Guyz” (later adapted into ‘We Like Sports’ for their 2009 album Incredibad), ‘The Backseatsman’ and ‘Ka-Blamo!’. After a momentous run on SNL that saw the three breach viral numbers with just about every digital short they dropped, Sandberg, Taccone and Schaffer have reunited for their second feature film, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and have demonstrated that though their production value may be more refined and expensive than ever and their cameo catalogue infinitely more vast, their comedic stylings have adamantly refused to mature, a tendency which proves to be both a gift and a curse for The Lonely Island and their creative offspring.
Of the trio, Sandberg is the main event as Conner4Real, a megalomaniacal popstar, the cut of whose jib is all too familiar this day and age. Conner rose to fame alongside lifelong buddies Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer) in the trend-making trio The Style Boyz, a kind of heavy-cussing proto-Beastie Boys collection. Ballooning egos and interpersonal battles led to the onstage dissolution of the group years ago, leaving Conner free to pursue a solo career and all the frills that accompany such. He finds unparalleled success with his debut album ‘Thriller, Also’ and struts down mega-stardom lane with all the confidence of a bull stud. This career trajectory is courtesy of pop icon Justin Timberlake, who appropriate finds himself playing a bit role in Popstar. Over the years, Timberlake has perhaps become the greatest living example of a star more than willing to self-parody, second only to Michael Bolton who also factors into Popstar‘s chronology, and his fleeting reunion with The Lonely Island is amongst its greater quiet moments. Timberlake’s talentless chef with obscured vocal talents is treated to a hearty congregation of one-liners that clear the fences with ease.
Conner, living under a rock on the far off beaches of zero perspective, represents the kind of preening toddler rock star more interested in Tumblr followers than maintaining lasting relationships. Even Owen, who stayed on as Conner’s DJ after The Style Boyz falling out, is privy to Conner’s adolescent fits. As Conner’s manager, played by Tim Meadows being Tim Meadows, diagnoses; Conner learned to cope with adversity inside the spotlight. Surrounded by yes men and egged on by those who stood to profit from his success, Conner’s musical talents lag second to his rising star and those open to criticizing his music or life choices find themselves on the receiving end of his wrath. His oversharing on social media – anything from scarfing down tacos to post-auto-erotic-self-coital (a.k.a. after tugging off) – is representative of the existing culture of pop stardom, where fans have immediate access to their sugary deities’ most intimate moments, and vice versa. The unchecked feedback loop informed by this devotee-to-pop-prince relationship leads to frightening delusions of grandeur a la beliebing Anne Frank would be amongst your fandom. Popstar can’t help but tick this true-to-life box.
A ribald riff on Justin Beiber’s 2011 popumentary Never Say Never, Never Stop Never Stopping’s structure imitates VH1’s ‘Behind the Music’ to mixed effect. A collection of actually famous talking heads – RZA, Usher, Simon Cowell, Mariah Carey – wax on the career of Conner4Real and the impact of his music on their own. Carey, who’s always stunk of a lacking sense of humor, relating to Conner’s autobiographically and self-congratulatory chart-topper “Humble” is leagues below Usher fan-boying over The Style Boyz hit tune “Donkey Roll” or RZA’s frequently clever word play. Intermittently funny though these bits prove to be, they are representative of the hit-and-miss nature of the whole. Some land. Some don’t. And for all the explosive laughter contained within Popstar, there is an even greater amount of dead air.
Large segments feel lifeless and at only 86 minutes, The Lonely Island’s movie still feels overlong. The guys’ background in sketch comedy is evident in the haphazard assembly of Popstar as certain tidbits don’t contribute to any greater driving narrative force but are nonetheless pigeon-holed in because, well, they’re kinda funny. See Bill Hader’s love of flatlining or Will Arnett sputtering as a faux-CMZ host.
Unsurprisingly, everything clicks when Conner launches into his musical repertoire. A pandering R&B groove sees shameless jingoism plug into a smooth sex beat with a hysterical refrain that mounts the funny bone like a stallion, “She wanted to fuck me harder than the U.S. government fucked Bin Laden.” The absolute standout sees The Lonely Island tearing Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ to bloody shreds, as Conner pairs a message of gay marriage equality with reminders that he is, in fact, not gay. Other over-the-top accounts of male nudity, such as an onstage wardrobe malfunction and Conner signing a flaccid penis from his limousine, keep the laughs chugging along and maintain a level of crudity befitting Judd Apatow’s producer credit but nothing comes even close to the red-butted spanking they deliver to Macklemore’s doorstep.
Everyone knows the musical mockumentary has already been done to perfection (This is Spinal Tap!) and even though Sandberg, Taccone and Schaffer try to update the formula to the 21st century, taking shots at Bieber and his ilk rather than the rockers of the 70s and 80s, not much has changed in terms of conflated ego over the years and that works as an inhibitor to their material. They occasionally stumble into sketches that work sans a musical backdrop but it’s clear that the trio can only truly triumph when applied to a beat. As far as their effort as filmmakers go, The Lonely Island have decidedly taken one step forward and two steps back. In drawing their shtick out to long-form “storytelling”, they’ve drained the pistol whip immediacy from their hysterics. Such down-and-dirty sock-rockers as “Dick in a Box”, “I’m On a Boat” and “Motherlover” and the subversive excellence of “Jizz in my Pants” and “Like a Boss” dwarf the entirety of Popstar because they slip in and out and deliver laughs throughout. At three minutes, they murder, creating little snuff boxes of brilliance begging to be opened and reopened time and again. But with Popstar, you’re better off trimming it down to the YouTube welcome hits and leaving it at that.
CONCLUSION: The Lonely Island find comedy excellence in ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’’s sardonic song parodies but the trip from one performance to the next has an unfortunate tendency to flatline and drag ass. As sporadically pants-splittingly hilarious as it juvenile, dumb and occasionally uninspired, the Andy Sandberg-starring vehicle has as many ups and downs as the sine wave of Conner4Real’s career.