Let’s get one thing straight, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is more than just a send up of Justin Bieber. Andy Samberg’s on-the-nose Bieber styling in all the promo material (how the hell is he 37?) makes it easy to confuse the sizzle for the steak. But to call this a timely parody would be an unfair reduction. The references are current, but the craft is practiced. The Lonely Island have been making sketch comedy together since George W’s first term, and Popstar feels like nothing so much as the culmination of their journey from college kids making silly videos to modern day Mel Brookses (and honestly, Popstar holds together better than most Mel Brooks movies).
It’s the kind of project that only happens when you combine 10,000 hours of experimentation and comedic chemistry with a budget big enough to live out all your most hare-brained dick dreams. Just like you forget Airplane! was a spoof of the Airport movies and Zero Hour! (I actually had to ask my editor — thanks, Keith), Justin Bieber is a convenient excuse for The Lonely Island to give us their This Is Spinal Tap. And they do it with a film that has the joke density of Naked Gun, comedy songs funnier than (and as legitimately listenable as) Weird Al, and scenes that frequently devolve into the kind of backyard surrealism that got them their breakout gig on SNL.
Let me unpack that a little bit, since talk of absurdist, post modern video art might be a little high falutin’ for a film with an extended shot of Judd Apatow’s bulbous dick smooshed against a car window. Do you remember the “cool beans” scene from Hot Rod?
This scene typifies The Lonely Island in many ways. It’s hard to end a sketch, and when The Lonely Island can’t come up with a satisfyingly comedic way to wrap up a scene within the previously established boundaries of their fiction, they have a tendency to dissect the entire format and make a splatter painting out of it. It’s sort of a “if you can’t find your way out of a maze, kick down the walls” approach. Their goals are more comedic than artistic, but their ability to go full deconstructionist at any given moment gives their work an element of surprise (always important in comedy). And a great laugh is kind of like a great orgasm. It’s better when you’re not just out of breath afterwards, but also kind of wondering what the f*ck just happened. (Cool beans? What the hell?)
Hot Rod was originally written as a Will Ferrell vehicle before Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer came onboard, and while a few singularly Lonely Island scenes ended up in it, you could tell they were basically the featured guests at someone else’s party. Popstar feels like The Lonely Island’s show. Samberg’s character, Conner4Real, has struck out on his own after leaving The Style Boyz, the three-piece boy band that made him famous, and which featured his childhood friends Lawrence (Schaffer) and Owen (Taccone). (Tim Meadows plays their manager, in a nice nod to Walk Hard, and to general good taste in comedy actors.) Success has since gone to Conner’s head, and he now employs 32 people on his personal payroll, including an umbrella butler and a perspective manipulator (a short guy who stands near him in pictures to make him look tall).
Hopefully it’s not too nauseating to make the connection, but if Conner4Real has lost his way striking out on his own, Popstar similarly feels like The Lonely Island’s reunion tour, what happens after all the solo projects and genre experimentation. SNL, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, three-episode arcs on Girls — those were nice, but not as nice as when the whole gang’s back together doing what they were meant to do. That is, making sex-obsessed novelty music constructed with a mix of technical wizardry, unabashed smuttiness, and child-like similes about stegosaurs. (“The whole gang” that is, minus the Asian dude from “Stork Patrol.” Wonder he’s up to these days?)