One-Joke "Popstar" For Andy Samberg Die-Hards Only

2005 was a good year for comedy troupe The Lonely Island. The musically inclined trio (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer) made hay with their newfound “Saturday Night Live” affiliation, pioneering the SNL Digital Short with nerdcore music video “Lazy Sunday.” Theirs was a headlong dive into pop culture ubiquity: movies, TV shows, albums, and more movies. But the group never really found its footing outside of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. (The Taccone-directed bomb “MacGruber” is a gem, though.)

Now a decade on from their zenith and four years removed from their departure from SNL, they’ve returned to remind us of their futility outside of bite size sketch comedy. Music mockumentary “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is an absolutely petrified chunk of satire that would’ve been at home, in pieces, on late-night television. In 2009.

That the music satire is well-worn ground (“This Is Spinal Tap,” HBO’s “Tenacious D,” “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”) seems to be lost on The Lonely Island, but the 85-minute film’s problems are much more than that.

Firstly, its focus is a soft one: hagiographic music docs, a subgenre of harmless puff pieces that are mostly beyond parody. See: “Katy Perry: Part Of Me.” (Or better yet, don’t.) There’s no there there, nothing to lampoon or comment on aside from some transparent pro-Perry grandstanding. Accordingly, Andy Samberg playing a dopey boy band expatriate named Conner is the entire joke in “Popstar,” a gag that The Lonely Island are content to riff on for the entirety of their film. There’s no depth, no building to grander jokes; merely the gags in the film’s trailers plus 80 less funny minutes and 60 seconds of Samberg having a close encounter with a fan’s exposed penis.

Taccone and Schaffer co-direct and co-star as Conner’s ex-bandmates, Owen and Lawrence. Owen is now Conner’s forlorn DJ, Lawrence a listless farmer. The three get one great scene together – a long-winded confession on the part of Conner – but it takes forever to get there and the preceding friction between them plays like filler. Most of the rest of the cast is a revolving door of celebrity cameos, some playing themselves (rapper Nas, drummer Questlove), some not (singer Justin Timberlake), all visibly, justifiably unconcerned with whatever it is they’re doing. The movie also inadvertently underlines how much worse it is than “Walk Hard” with star of both films Tim Meadows turning in a sleepwalked performance as Conner’s manager.

Most of the movie’s chuckles arrive with its songs, exploding the notion that “Popstar” needed to be a full-blown movie instead of another album. The best track is a funny but overlong jab at rapper Macklemore and his ill-conceived social justice anthem “Same Love.” Less effective is a song whose sole purpose is to bemoan the Mona Lisa as “an overrated piece of shit.” Most bewildering of all is a catchy but utterly humorless feature from Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine. If that’s the joke, it’s not a very good one.

Then there’s the Justin Bieber thing. The film – an unmistakable mockery of the 22 year-old Canadian singer who’s released a few corny music documentaries of his own – was in the can before Bieber spent the back half of 2015 wresting superstardom from the clutches of obscurity. With a few genuinely great megahits, Bieber climbed from laughing stock to bigger star than he ever had been, instantly aging “Popstar” before anyone had laid eyes on it.

Perhaps most incriminatory of all is that Samberg remains a marginal comic voice – less Jim Carrey, more Pauly Shore. He’s not a leading man in any sense of the phrase, his boyish looks and stoner comedy roots forever mismatched, begging for someone funnier than him to play off of. He’s never as amusing as he wants to be, betrayed here by a format that requires him to sustain the kinds of comedic highs that he only hits ever so often. His low batting average can work in the context of a short. Lightning can strike! But at feature length he’s doomed.

Samberg and company have mastered the kind of lazy, indifferent comedic filmmaking that it took Ben Stiller an entire career to nail down. Instead of clawing at the soul-sucking nature of bad pop music (a la Bo Burnham’s marvelous five-minute track “Repeat Stuff”), “Popstar” makes easy jokes about weed and poop and vacuous celebrities in a way that’s more “Zoolander 2” than “Zoolander.” Being a dyed-in-the-wool Samberg fan is a prerequisite for enjoying “Popstar,” a movie that’s sure to thrill anyone who thought 2007’s “Hot Rod” was a high-water mark for big screen comedy. Everyone else will be left scratching their heads.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: June 3, 2016
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
Screenwriter: Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone
Starring: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows
MPAA Rating: R (for some graphic nudity, language throughout, sexual content and drug use)