REVIEW: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

7 06 2016

Comedy teams rarely come in trios. We have the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges … and maybe the Wolfpack from “The Hangover” trilogy, if one is feeling generous and contemporary. Otherwise, the duo, the pairs, the buddies or whatever you call them rule the day. It makes sense given how hard developing and maintaining comedic synergy between two people can be. Adding a third person turns a game of catch into a bout of juggling.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” shows more than ever that The Lonely Island can juggle, albeit maybe more with clubs and scarves than swords or fire. The comedy group burst onto the cultural scene over a decade and essentially dragged sketch comedy into the Internet viral video era. After producing countless short musical sensations with their SNL Digital Shorts, they finally put their energies towards a more conventional vehicle – a feature film of their very own. (Not counting 2007’s “Hot Rod,” which they reworked from a script originally intended for Will Ferrell.)

The Lonely Island might be at their peak form when producing episodic, concentrated shorts, though becoming aware of this fact does not lessen the pleasures of “Popstar” in the slightest. The film holds together quite nicely as a piece with a forward-moving narrative engine all of its own, not merely a collection of sketch-like bits and musical numbers. The wacky invented boy band frontman-turned-rapper Conner4Real (played by Andy Samberg) shows they know quite a bit about the contours of modern pop stardom, although they poke fun at it far more in this mockumentary than they point out its hollowness.

But the real marvel of “Popstar” is not their understanding of pop culture. It’s their understanding of themselves.

Andy Samberg as Conner4Real in Popstar

Let’s return for a brief second to the Marx Brothers example at the beginning. If you think about them casually, one is likely to stand out – Groucho, who achieved the most fame and cultural prominence on his own. Yet watch “Duck Soup” or “A Night at the Opera,” both true classics, and note how Chico and Harpo are featured nearly equally in the laughter distribution. No one really steals the show. They all work together to provide frequent laughs with varying consistencies.

The Lonely Island functions rather similarly. Samberg clearly features as the most prominent member of the group given his on-camera exposure through “Saturday Night Live,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and other projects. He is the star; they know it, and they work with it. But in this comedy triangle, the points are pretty close to equidistant – not to get too 9th grade geometry here. His fellow collaborators, Jorma Taccone (as bandmate turned DJ/hype man Owen) and Akiva Schaffer (as group defector Lawrence), get their chance to share the spotlight and showcase their contributions beyond writing and directing.

The film is best when the three share the screen together, and the group us to bear witness to their astonishing comic synergy. “Popstar” illuminates their process behind the scenes and plays it out before our eyes. The members of The Lonely Island vibrate on the same wavelength to a scary extent, almost as if these three guys share the same brain. Factor in the tremendous diversity of humor they play around with – satire, farce, exaggeration, understatement, wordplay, timing gags – and their steadiness becomes all the more impressive.

The Lonely Island’s content seems to occupy a similar place in the public imagination as “South Park,” which is to say many people look down on it because the surface level appeals to young viewers with very little sophistication. Underneath the silliness, however, runs a truly electrifying current of comedic energy. To deny that charge and vitality is to overlook the significant force of these humorists, performers and teammates. B+3stars

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