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?)
When you hear a plot rundown for Popstar, about how Conner4Real employs a wolf tamer and a unicorn trainer, or see him playing basketball with his yes men in the trailer, it’d be easy to get the impression that it’s a direct satire. I love Zoolander, but Popstar isn’t Zoolander. That’s not to say there isn’t satire. Plenty of sharp lines poke fun specifically at the pop industry, like Conner4Real explaining his deal with a refrigerator company. “Nowadays there’s no such thing as selling out. If you don’t sell out people with think it’s because no one asked you to.”
But it’s not its satirical edge that makes Popstar so impressive, or even how funny it is. It’s how many different kinds of funny it is. Being both a mockumentary and a spoof, its most obvious analogs are probably This Is Spinal Tap and the underrated Walk Hard. But Popstar also has Tim & Eric-esque absurdism, music that would make non-parody artists jealous (with a Weird Al cameo as de facto blessing), and the presumably Judd Apatow-influenced stream of constant celeb cameos. As a guy who hated 85% of the LeBron James storyline from Trainwreck (to say nothing of that unforgivable Marv Albert scene) I’m not crazy about the “funny because famous” formula, but The Lonely Island have a unique way of making it their own. Like so many Wu Tang references that it becomes a self aware joke. And a scene bookended by a RZA confessional, saying, “Conner had climbed all the way to the top of the industry only to fall all the way to the bottom. Nobody could possibly understand what that’s like, unless they’re a coconut.”
Even expecting the RZA cameo, and even expecting him to play against type for laughs, I honestly never expected him to be the delivery system for a so-deadpan-it’s-almost-a-non-joke joke about coconuts. It would’ve been a funny line without RZA, but RZA’s delivery makes it ten times funnier.
There are frequent interludes of a TMZ-style show, starring Will Arnett as the ersatz Harvey Levin. They’re not only a stinging critique of TMZ‘s vapid commentary and idiotic editing, but occasionally devolve into pure absurdity, and a running gag in which Arnett’s plastic thermos gets bigger and bigger.
It’s as stupid as it is relevant, and that layering of humor styles — insightful satire, no-holds-barred vulgarity, irresistible juvenilia, surreal pop art, timeless deadpan — are Popstar‘s hallmark. It’s smart, dumb, silly, and gross in all the right ways. I loved it.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.