Overview: A musical superstar who found initial fame with a three-person group struggles with his second solo album. Universal Pictures; 2016; Rated R; 86 Minutes.
So Humble: By 2013, Comedy Central roasts had lost all of their charm, having been essentially reduced to a commercial for the roast target and a reason for a roomful of mid-tier comedians (and non-comedians obviously borrowing jokes written by comedians) to gather and insult one another with a “Who’s going to be more offensive?” undertone driving the events. But when Andy Samberg was invited to roast James Franco, he adopted a different approach, one in which he mostly delivered compliments to his fellow roasters while positioning himself as the punchline. The assault of goofy kindness is, possibly, the funniest set ever performed at any of the network’s 14 televised roasts, a stretch in which the real comedic evaluation was pointed toward the entire self-indulgence of the roasting tradition and the insecurity that likely drives comedians to be who they are. I mention this because this aesthetic also marks the territory wherein Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone function at their comedic best, and have accordingly hit that point a number of times in their new mockumentary feature length comedy film Popstar: Never Stop Stopping.
For instance, in one of the film’s best sequences, Connor Friel or Connor4Real (Andy Samberg) releases his newest single, a socially conscious song with lyrics that attempt to support gay marriage while also clearly asserting Connor’s heterosexuality. It’s borderline brilliant. By placing Connor as the stupid butt of the joke, the song at once measures the pop-culture prevalent reserved homophobia and masculinity that would make such a release necessary and then highlights the daftness, insincerity, and narcissism that would lead a famous singer to offer up his or herself as a mediating voice on the topic.
Donkey Roll: The consistency of successful gags is less than even, but when it suffers, it suffers more due to structure than content. There are times when the film starts to feel more like Samberg’s Greatest Saturday Night Live outtakes (not just because of the alumni cameos, but also just in the rhythm and late missteps). Because so much of The Lonely Island’s approach to comedy leans on unexpected turns, to explain through example which Popstar jokes work and which don’t would be a disservice to the ones that work best. But because Popstar is a little too beholden to the group’s 90-minute sketch show roots, it lacks just a little of the assurance and self-confidence that drove the ingenious 2007 film Hot Rod, which owed more to the rising popularity of viral videos than it did to the more mainstream platforms of success familiar to the trio since.
Incredible Thoughts: In the modern comedic moment, audiences have been conditioned to expect that comedy now comes equipped with a sniper scope and every joke needs to have the right victim. Every week, John Oliver destroys some corporation or politician and Daniel Tosh eviscerates P.C. complainers. Amy Schumer is constantly skewering sexists, Patton Oswalt is slapping down the over-sensitive left crowd, and the Internet allows for immediate populist rebuttals to anything that falls in between. Modern comedy has been weaponized and we all have to measure in which direction our jokes are being thrown, which makes it all the more satisfying to see Samberg, Schaffer, and Daccone succeeding in their harmless, toothless, punchless brand. Popstar has even less bite than This is Spinal Tap, the film to which critics might feel obligated to point their comparisons, and because comedy is what it is today, it is all the better for it.
Overall: In the 2010s battle of jokes, The Lonely Island is overly willing to let themselves be punched, to run onto the playing field and just fall down, as a means of proving, without malicious accusation, that we are all taking ourselves and each other a bit too seriously at times. Comedy doesn’t do that enough these days, but Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping does.