Jokes based on specific, contemporary references never last long; today's most popular targets are likely to be forgotten by this time next year.
Building films around yesterday's biggest laughs is a risk that many directors are still willing to take, however, and at first, it seems like The Lonely Island crew have premiered dated, forgettable dreck with their latest, boy band-skewering mockumentary, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.
Instead, however, the seeming One Direction and Justin Bieber parody rises above its very millennial premise, albeit never too high. Multi-hyphenate helmers Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer turn a story about spoiled boy banders into both relevant parody and broader satire of the music documentary genre. Sure, that satire is defined by a fondness for dick jokes and the word "fuck," but the movie more often than not finds real laughs despite itself.
Much of the humor comes from the boys' real songwriting talent. It's likely that anyone interested in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a Lonely Island fan to begin with, but just in case: The trio made a name for themselves on Saturday Night Live, making pre-taped short films and music videos that became some of YouTube's earliest viral videos. These songs are witty, profane and pitch-perfect takes on rap and R&B.
Popstar's soundtrack is its biggest asset
The soundtrack of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping might not reach the heights of hits like "Dick in a Box," but that's kind of the point. Hip-hop superstar Conner4Real (Samberg) is on the verge of releasing his sophomore album, and he's desperate to avoid a slump. He's too arrogant to admit that, of course; despite songs called "I'm So Humble" (featuring Adam Levine, it's a favorite of Mariah Carey, one of many celebrity cameos), Conner is as confident as he is inept.
When the album drops, it's terrible, of course — Pitchfork gives it a negative 4.0 and Rolling Stone grants it a poop emoji out of four stars. But the songs we get to hear Conner perform are mindlessly catchy, addicting earworms with some truly hilarious lines. The subsequent touring performances of Conner's jams, along with those of his co-headliner and former band — whose break-up and potential reconciliation fuels the movie's strangely sweet emotional core — are the movie's shining moments.
Less glowing are the scenes around them. Conner's redemption tour arc is predictable to anyone who's ever watched a movie about strong-willed creatives, and it's obvious The Lonely Island has no interest in constructing anything more than that. The group's focus, as always, is on lowbrow shock humor and non-sequiturs. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping has plenty of both of those going around, sometimes to its detriment. It never gets to the anti-comic levels of The Lonely Island's first feature Hot Rod, but there are certainly groans to be had.
Yet there's also a real investment in the characters of Conner and ex-best friends Owen and Lawrence, who, together, had once topped the charts as the Style Boyz, only to clash over songwriting credits and go their separate ways.
The humor relies more on absurdity than references
Don't be mistaken: If you're looking for some touching music-based drama, look elsewhere. This is a movie whose best scenes feature jokes about gay marriage, being mauled by wolves and the inanity of celebrity gossip shows. But it's nice that Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping does make an attempt to be a bit more than just easy laughs, featuring characters with real stakes and growth. The storytelling helps to prevent the film from becoming too dated, since its plot is age-old and familiar, and the humor is mined as much from music and absurdism as it is from the audience's familiarity with cultural touchstones.
Not every joke lands, especially if you're outside of the 18-year-old boy demographic. But for every tepid gag or cringeworthy goof, there's a seriously catchy song to more than make up for it. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is neither flawless nor unforgettable; watching a handful of Lonely Island videos from Saturday Night Live is certainly preferable. But it's a silly, surprisingly successful extension of The Lonely Island's short-form comedy.