The Lonely Island comedy trio -- Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg -- have been writing and performing together since 2000, but they didn't reach national prominence until 2005, when their Saturday Night Live digital short "Lazy Sunday" went viral. "Lazy Sunday" crystallized the troupe's winning musical formula: Ferocious, chest-thumping rap braggadocio in service of silly and self-deprecating lyrics, like eating cupcakes and seeing a matinee of The Chronicles of Narnia. On SNL, three albums, and a run of consistently hilarious music videos, The Lonely Island has become the hip-hop equivalent to Jack Black and Kyle Gass' long-running heavy metal parody/homage, Tenacious D. And the lingering question for both is: How far can one joke be stretched?
For Tenacious D, the answer was the humbling 2006 farce Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, which sputtered after a brilliant standalone opening. The Lonely Island fares considerably better with Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, perhaps because the concept isn't limited to rap parody, but acts as a net that trawls the entire pop universe, in all its pomposity and excess and chronic eccentricity. Taking a mock-documentary form that draws from This is Spinal Tap, VH-1's Behind the Music, and promotional movies like Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and Katy Perry: Part of Me, Popstar isn't a satire so much as a warped funhouse reflection of the contemporary scene. It's bright, affectionate, and so keyed into our particular pop moment that it all but hurls itself into a time capsule.
It's also full of jokes, lots of them, pouring out from the dialogue, the soundtrack, and an onslaught of graphics, references, foreground/background jokes, and random jokes tucked into the crevasses. Schaffer, Taccone, and Samberg had tried to make a feature-length comedy before in the underrated Hot Rod, which tanked, but this is their first true Lonely Island movie and they're not leaving any potential laughs off the table. The manic pacing gives Popstar the jagged rhythm of a hit-or-miss spoof in the Airplane! tradition, but there's enough hits to sustain every scene and a simple arc about friendship and collaboration to carry the finale across.
As Popstar opens, Conner4Real (Samberg) is an ascendent phenom, having used the early success of The Style Boyz, the band he started with childhood buddies Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer), to catapult, Justin Timberlake-like, to solo glory. Now surrounded entirely by sycophants, including 23 personal assistants, Conner is readying the launch of his new album, Connquest, for which he wrote all the songs and slickened with the services of 100 producers. With singles like "Equal Rights," a marriage equality anthem laced with gay panic, and "Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)," a sex track littered with references to the Osama Bin Laden killing, Connquest is a critical flop and a commercial disaster. (Pitchfork gives it -4.0 out of 10 while Rolling Stone opts for the poop emoji on its four-star scale.)
Nonetheless, Conner tours in support of the record, breaking out new gimmicks to stave off his dwindling fortune. In that, Popstar acts as a scaled-up This is Spinal Tap, following a washed-up outfit through half-filled arenas as its latest LP drifts into obscurity. The film has a sentimental side, too, as Conner seeks to mend fences with Owen and Lawrence, who are reduced to DJ-ing with an iPod and working on a dust-choked farm, respectively. Samberg's breakout success as a TV and movie star likely informs this subplot, with The Style Boyz as a stand-in for The Lonely Island, but a comedy this untroubled doesn't hint at any true discord.
Conner's image as a runaway egotist and conspicuous spender feeds into blockbuster scope of Popstar, which doesn't allow for the more modest observational comedy of Spinal Tap or a Christopher Guest comedy like A Mighty Wind. The film is jammed with a who's-who of celebrity cameos and bit parts, like Timberlake as a personal chef with a yen for carrot preparation, and massive setpieces, like Seal presiding over a wedding proposal disrupted by a pack of wild wolves. Some of the jokes undercut pop grotesquerie, others are merely silly for the sake of it. And as with any good Lonely Island song, all of them are delivered with infectious brio.