The Evolution of The Lonely Island Sports Movie

It’s been three years since The Lonely Island (Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg) released their latest commercial-bomb-turned-cult–classic, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and that 2010s update to Walk Hard pop music biopic parody finally has its follow-up. While Popstar mocked the modern “concert documentaries” (read: feature length infomercials) of acts like Justin Bieber & One Direction as an excuse to stage ZAZ-style gags & The Lonely Island’s classic music video sketches, the group’s latest release adopts an even flimsier format to do the same: the visual album. Self-described as “a visual poem” and surprise-dropped on Netflix in a Beyoncé-evoking distribution strategy, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is pure Lonely Island goofballery. It’s difficult to tell if its visual album format is meant to be a joke at the expense of hubristic projects like Lemonade & Dirty Computer or more of a self-deprecating joke at the expense of The Lonely Island themselves for even attempting to pull off such a loftily minded project in the first place. Either way, its’ a brilliant move that not only updates their cinematic sensibilities to a more modern version of pop music media, but also removes two barriers that tend to stand in the way of what makes them so enjoyable to watch: the necessity of a plot to justify a feature-length film & the necessity of box office success to pay their producers’ bills. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience isn’t as successful or as substantial of a work as Popstar, but it is one that further suggests that these very silly boys have finally reached a new sense of ambition & efficiency in their craft. It’s also an accomplishment that they’ve been building towards for years, if you consider the earlier, more restrained sports mockumentaries of their past as trial runs.

Appropriately enough, The Lonely Island’s cinematic career started with a feature-length sports narrative. While still producing Digital Shorts for SNL, the trio of pop music parodists delivered their first delightful box office bomb with 2007’s Hot Rod. While not quite as formally daring or riotously funny as Popstar (or even Jorma Taccone’s other SNL-era feature, MacGruber, for that matter), Hot Rod is still pretty damn hilarious from start to finish. It was the first instance when I can recall genuinely enjoying Andy Samberg beyond his usefulness as someone who makes Joanna Newsom laugh. Playing an overgrown man-child who wants to be a daredevil just like his deceased father, Samberg’s general mode in Hot Rod is slapstick comedy and it’s classically funny on a Three Stooges level as a result. Often missing jumps on his dirtbike & puking from the pain, Samberg’s titular Rod is far from the Evel Knievel Jr. he imagines himself to be. There’s a lot of solid humor derived from the disparity between Rod’s confidence & his actual abilities, which allows you to have a good laugh at his expense even when he drowns, catches fire, or explodes. That’s an interesting subversion of the traditional underdog sports story, but it’s still one that plays its comedic beats relatively safely. The premise is mostly grounded in reality yet is careful not to resemble any real-life public figures too closely (not even Knievel). Its structure remains true to the traditional sports movie narrative too, even if its greatest strengths rely on long strings of non-sequitur gags. For instance, most of the film boasts a killer 80s synthpop soundtrack, but towards the climax when Rod’s crew has their inevitable third-act falling-out, the score suddenly switches to melodramatic string arrangements – effectively poking fun at its own necessity to transform into A Real Movie at the last minute. With more filmmaking experience under their belts & more celebrity star power backing up their audacity, their sports movies parodies only strengthened from there.

At this point in The Lonely Island’s career timeline, Hot Rod’s timid SNL Movie comedy template feels more like a one-off anomaly than an early wind-up for what Bash Brothers delivers. If anything, Bash Brothers feel like it’s the final film in a trilogy of sports parodies that Lonely Island initially produced for HBO, mostly as a creative outlet for Samberg. At a half-hour a piece, Samberg’s sports mockumentaries Tour de Pharmacy (2017) & 7 Days in Hell (2015) are the earliest telegraphs of where the Lonely Island crew would eventually go with Bash Brothers. Respectively tackling the real-life sports world controversies of doping in cycling & angry outbursts in tennis, Tour de Pharmacy & 7 Days in Hell fearlessly make fun of some of the biggest scandals in sports history (short of the O.J. Simpson murder trial) in violent jabs of ZAZ-style chaos. What’s most amazing about them is that they invite the real-life sports celebrities involved in those scandals to participate in their own mockery. John McEnroe drops by 7 Days in Hell to poke fun at a fictional “bad boy of tennis” (played by Samberg, naturally) whose antics with sex, drugs, and physical violence result in a deadly Wimbledon match that drags on for a solid week, disrupting & disgracing a once-reputable sport. Serena Williams also pops by as a talking head, even through the media’s policing of her own supposed emotional outbursts is much more unreasonable than McEnroe’s. In Tour de Pharmacy, Lance Armstrong talks at length about how every single cyclist who competes in the Tour de France is aided by illegal substances, directly recalling his own downfall in a very public doping scandal. Wrestler-turned-comedian John Cena also appears as a steroids-enraged monster in the film, tangentially poking fun at the WWE’s own history with performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, both projects are still packed with the juvenile non-sequiturs & physical comedy gags that have been constant to Samberg’s sense of humor, now emboldened to be more sexually explicit than ever before thanks to the freedom of HBO – resulting in bisexual orgies, unconventional prostate stimulation, and characters high-fiving during cunnilingus. It’s the bravery of connecting those very silly gags to very real publicity crises for sports figures who are participating along with the creators that feels new & mildly transgressive.

As daring as it may be to trivialize real-life sports controversies in such a flippantly silly way, those two HBO productions still feel somewhat formally restricted. It wasn’t until Samberg rejoined with Schaffer & Taccone post-Popstar that his sports cinema mockery really hit is pinnacle, just a few weeks ago. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience makes full use of all The Lonely Island’s best cinematic qualities: the music video sketch comedy of their SNL days, the rise-and-fall (and fall and fall) sports narrative of Hot Rod, the gross-out sex gags of MacGruber, the shameless evisceration of real-life sports scandals from Sandberg’s HBO mockumentaries and, finally, the chaotic disregard for traditional structure of Popstar. The Netflix-hosted half-hour comedy special wastes no time mocking the steroids abuse scandal that plagued the 1989 World Series run of the real-life “Bash Brothers,” Mark McGuire & Jose Conseco. The very first verse Samberg raps in this “visual poem” (read: loose collection of music videos) references steroids abuse, a theme that’s reinforced over & over again in the group’s usual 80s-era Beastie Boys cadence with lines like “I never finish sex because I’m so juiced out” and “Stab the needle in my ass until I am rich.” The genius of adapting this mockery to a visual album medium is that is allows the boys to go full-goof 100% of the time, packing in as many music video sketches as they please, unburdened by the necessity of a coherent plot. As funny as Samberg’s HBO specials were, they’re still fairly grounded mockumentaries that parody the tones & structure of many HBO Films productions of the past. Hot Rod is even more beholden to classic cinematic templates, falling well within the boundaries of a typical SNL movie even if its individual gags are specific to The Lonely Island’s sensibilities. While Bash Brothers can easily be seen as a swipe at the hubris of the visual album format, it ultimately just proves the point that it’s a genius, unrestrained medium that brings out the best #purecinema potential of any popstar who dares to utilize it – even incredibly silly parodists with a fetish for traditional sports narratives.

The Unauthorized Bash Bothers Experience feels like an epiphanic moment within The Lonely Island’s cinematic output, a culminating achievement in the sports movie template that they’ve been trying to crack open for more than a decade now. Of course, I wish that feature-length comedies like Popstar & MacGruber were more successful as theatrical gambles, but I am glad that these very silly boys have finally found a more viable niche for their sports movie parodies. I’m also glad to see these comedy nerds continue to take the piss out of our deeply flawed sports gods of yesteryear – an achievement that’s only make doubly fascinating by those gods’ participatory amusement in their own mockery.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 42: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where White Men Can’t Jump (1992) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert nostalgically discusses the value of well-written dialogue. He writes, “The big difference between today’s dialogue and the dialogue of years ago is that the characters have grown stupid. They say what is needed to advance the plot and get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words. Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in […] the first thirty minutes of White Men Can’t Jump

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “What the movie knows is how the game is played in the tough urban circles where these guys operate. The director, Ron Shelton, who also wrote the screenplay, knows how his characters talk and sound, and how they get into each other’s minds with nonstop taunting and boasting. The language is one of the great joys of this film, not just because of its energy and spirit (most of the characters are gifted verbal improvisers) but because of its originality. The usual four-letter words and their derivatives are upstaged by some of the most creative and bizarre insults I have ever heard in a movie.” -from his 1992 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

Legendary indie scene auteur Spike Lee is nominated for two major Oscar categories this year, Best Director & Bet Picture, which is a remarkable achievement for a film as formally bizarre & politically angry as BlacKkKlansman. It’s a hype cycle that’s stirred up a lot of memories of other times when Lee was a hot ticket in the industry, not least of all because his latest film’s nomination among Pete Farrelly’s disastrous feel-good race relations drama Green Book feels like a repeat of when Lee’s iconic work Do the Right Thing lost the Best Picture Oscar to Driving Miss Daisy in 1990. Spike Lee may be an established legend in the industry by now, making his road to Oscar accolades less of an uphill battle, but Hollywood’s relationship with his deliberately divisive, provocative work has always been oddly hot & cold. They’re willing to nominate him for Oscars, but only as a long-shot underdog against more palatable, bullshit-caked films like Driving Miss Daisy & Green Book. There was apparently even a time when Hollywood was willing to emulate Spike Lee’s aesthetic instead of, you know, funding his work directly. 1992’s basketball court gambling drama White Men Can’t Jump feels unmistakably like watching White Studio Execs attempt to reverse-engineer the wide-audience friendly version of a Spike Lee joint in a boardroom, borrowing his fashion & aesthetic, but ditching all of the pesky politics that get in the way of the fun. Usually, Hollywood settles for undervaluing Spike Lee’s work by awarding its more sanitized rivals like Green Book; with White Men Can’t Jump, the industry instead attempted to transform his work into Green Book, which at least takes more chutzpa.

White Men Can’t Jump stars Wesley Snipes (who also starred in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever one year prior) as a low-level basketball hustler & Rosie Perez (who starred in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing three years prior) as an alcoholic trivia addict. Except that it doesn’t star either of those actors at all. Instead, our POV-centering protagonist is a compulsive gambler played by affable white man Woody Harrelson, who profits off the Southern California black community’s underestimation of white boy street cred. His main value as a basketball hustler is that his unsuspecting marks don’t know to fear his skill on the court because of his lily-white skin. He’s occasionally out-hustled himself and much of the drama derives from his crippling gambling addiction, but that does little to soften to blow of this being a film about how white people can be just as good at basketball as anybody else, so you shouldn’t be too prejudiced against their athleticism. Wesley Snipes plays a loud-mouthed schemer who works countless jobs & grifts to help realize his wife’s dream of moving to the safety of the suburbs. Perez plays an alcoholic trivia nerd who aspires to be the world’s foremost Jeopardy champion in what has to be her best, most outlandish character work outside the plane crash PTSD drama Fearless. Yet, we see the film through the eyes of an annoyingly bland white man anti-hero, one whose vocabulary includes such lovely phrases as “negro,” “faggot,” “reverse discrimination,” “Farrakhan disciple son of a bitch,” and the frequently-repeated refrain “Shut the fuck up,” usually directed at his lovely girlfriend. The movie even pauses dead-still for a minute so he can whitesplain Jimi Hendrix to his hustling partner, which 100% would have been a scene in Green Book if it were set ten years later. It’s very frustrating.

White Man Can’t Jump does have flashes of charm, even beyond the stellar character work from Rosie Perez. If nothing else, it’s an excellent 90s fashion lookbook, modeling an extensive line of Spike Lee-inspired athletic wear on the basketball courts of Venice Beach, CA. The film’s attempt to echo Lee’s focus on slang dialogue often leads to a solid one-liner in an insult comedy context, as this is just as much a trash-talking movie as it is a basketball movie. Besides Rosie Perez’s surreal Jeopardy quest, the best sequences of the film are the documentarian portraits of the buskers, hustlers, and weirdos of Venice Beach and the ceremonial trading of “Yo Mama” jokes between basketball sessions. Those are only incidental, mood-setting details in the greater purpose of tracking the ups & downs of one fish-out-of-water white man’s ego, however, a choice in protagonist that kneecaps the movie before it can even get itself running. Workman director Ron Shelton doesn’t even have the decency to rip off the exaggerated Ernest Dickerson flourishes of Spike Lee’s cinematography, settling instead for the same flat sports drama approach he took with Bull Durham, Blue Chips, and Tin Cup, as if it were a one-size-fits-all technique. I want to say White Men Can’t Jump is worthwhile for Rosie Perez’s character work and for the sartorial pleasures of its 90s fashion lookbook, but the film is ultimately too phony, too repetitive, and too politically awkward to enjoy for any five minute stretch without a vicious cringe interrupting your pleasure. And yet, this is the movie that was playing on TV when I was a kid, not Do the Right Thing. And still, Green Book has a much better chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar this weekend than BlacKkKlansman. Go figure.

Roger’s Rating: (3.5/4, 88%)

Brandon’s Rating: (2.5/5, 50%)

Next Lesson: Ikiru (1952)

-Brandon Ledet

Early Man (2018)

Aardman Animations is not the first place I look to for surprise in my stop-motion animated media. The folks behind the A Town Called Panic series thrive on chaos & comedic surprise; Laika Entertainment continually surprises in the technological advancements they bring to stop-motion as an artform in every release (most recently in the jaw-dropping Kubo and the Two Strings). Aardman, for their part, are the picture of consistency. Brands like Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are consistently clever & adorable, but in the exact way you’d expect from Aardman, who have been adorable & clever for decades running now. That’s why I was confident that I knew exactly what to expect form Aardman’s newest release, Early Man. Advertised as the studio’s take on caveman life & follies in the Stone Age, I expected a Wallace & Gromit-style romp flavored with anachronistic jokes about volcanoes & dinosaurs. Early Man starts exactly that way, borrowing a few gags form The Flintstones where prehistoric creatures are employed as household appliances – baby gator clothes pins, buzzing beetle electric razors, etc. After that early business of place-setting, though, the movie surprised (and delighted) me in its choice of genre, unexpectedly functioning as a . . . sports movie? I did not see that coming.

Eddie Redmayne voices our protagonist caveman (the most likable he’s been outside his weirdo, pseudo-drag performance in Jupiter Ascending), a plucky go-getter named Dug. His eternal optimism comes in handy as his small tribe of cave-dwelling rabbit hunters are pushed out of their native land by an invading, more technologically advanced society (lead by another frequently unlikable Brit, Tom Hiddleston). The clash is an absurd literalization of the Bronze Age pushing the Stone Age out of existence, but not any more absurd than the battle used to determine which tribe will maintain possession of the contested land: a soccer match. Early Man immediately details the accidental invention of soccer in its prologue, then briefly drops the subject until it gradually becomes a very faithful participation in a traditional sports movie template. The film is much closer to the irreverent sports comedy antics of Shaolin Soccer than anything resembling a sports drama (as is natural from a stop-motion animated Aardman release), but its plot is a conventional underdog story about sports novices preparing for The Big Game against the best, most arrogant team in the land, with the exact results you’d expect. That genre choice might come as a surprise to any American audiences who stumble into the picture (not many, I’m guessing; the theater where I saw it on opening weekend was near-empty); I don’t think there was a single soccer ball featured in the film’s domestic advertising.

Genre & plot are obviously among the least important facets of any Aardman release. Early Man’s cavemen dolts, with their dopey pig snouts & overbites, are adorable buffoons, especially in comparison with their Bronze Age Adonis enemies. The movie even sidesteps common problems with these traditionalist, throwback kids’ movie narratives by making sure to include a race/gender-diverse cast of characters and no extraneous romance plot. The world these prehistoric goofballs occupy is also crawling with ridiculous creatures that often steal the show: a (sorta) anthropomorphic rock, a meteor crash-surviving cockroach, a hog who thinks he’s a dog, (perhaps most significantly) a fanged kaiju-sized duck, etc. Soccer is merely a backdrop for these creatures’ & cavemen’s nonstop barrage of Aardman-style goofs & gags, which are just as adorable & clever here as they always are.

Even though they rarely catch me by surprise, I love Aardman’s style just the way it is (bad pop music and all). I find it dispiriting that the studio isn’t Minions-level popular in America. There’s likely nothing that could save this film’s presumably dire domestic box office returns. Anyone willing to show up in the first place is likely only driven by leftover goodwill form the days of Wallace & Gromit, with a only a few new fans won over along the way. Still, I appreciated the unexpected genre shift in Aardman’s usual, adorable buffoonery here. Sports movies aren’t typically my genre of choice, but it was lovely to see Aardman deliver a genuine surprise while remaining true to their regular comedic tone. Keeping their consistent look & humor fresh might actually be a question of future genre experiments. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (lightly) tested horror waters for them in the past. Their upcoming Shaun the Sheep movie Armageddon looks like it dabbles in sci-fi. I likely would have enjoyed Early Man all the same if it hadn’t adapted Aardman’s style to a sports movie mold, but it might just be that exact kind of genre experimentation the studio needs to keep its loyal audience on their toes.

-Brandon Ledet

Rollerball (1975)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Despite what you may assume from the flood of recent titles like Nerve, The Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner, the future-murder sports dystopia flick is not a new invention. The stars of those YA action flicks might skew younger & more feminine than they used to, but there’s a long tradition of dystopian sci-fi sports movies that dates at least as far back as cult classic like Death Race 2000, The Running Man, Tron, and Logan’s Run. Unfortunately, the James Caan sports dystopia Rollerball isn’t exactly a forgotten gem of the genre. It’s an admirable contribution to the field, though, and it had the good fortune of arriving early enough in the deadly future-sports genre to escape accusations of being derivative. If released in 2016 with a Chloë Grace Moretz or an Elle Fanning in its lead role, Rollerball would be a bankable, but forgotten addition to an already-crowded field, but in 1975 it could still pass as an oddity & a novelty, one that’s – for better or for worse – a lot more gruff & macho than its genre has become in the decades since.

The most exciting aspect of Rollerball is, of course, its titular game. Like a deadly version of roller derby filtered through aspects of football, hockey, jai alai, and motocross, rollerball is a swirling tornado of roller skates, motorbikes, and beefy men aiming to break the neck of any competitor willing to block their path to the same goal that commands most professional sports: putting the ball in the hole. Director Norman Jewison (who is also responsible for Moonstruck, oddly enough), throws all of his weight into the staging & the cinematography of the scenes set in the rollerball arena. The film opens with ominous organs that playfully hover between stadium music & a horror score. Intensely lit players on roller skates & motorcycles whip around the arena, flashing spiked gloves & ridiculous facial hair. Rollerball was made in a time when roller derby felt like a brutal & futuristic sport. It’s since become somewhat of a retro relic, but it’s got its own legion of dedicated fans & players and the movie captures the excitement of those crowds, just with an extra layer of bloodlust piled on top. As such, it’s perfectly calibrated for cult film longevity, even if it’s outshone by far superior works like Death Race 2000 & Logan’s Run.

That’s why it’s somewhat of a shame that the rest of the film surrounding the fictional sport is so oddly subdued. James Caan is perfectly cast as a gruff, but aging sports star, recalling several mid-70s quarterbacks from the NFL. He’s seen as being too on top of his game, however, as the wealthy executives who won the international rollerball league urge him to retrieve & squash his massive fanbase. The world of Rollerball is vaguely defined, but features a monolithic organization of Corporations that have replaced world governments with insular profit sharing & traded in business-disrupting wards with, you guessed it, rollerball. The Energy Corporation, who owns the Houston team Caan’s protagonist leads to frequent victory, reminds their star player constantly and with grave seriousness that, “No player is greater than the game itself.” As a sport, rollerball was specifically designed to encourage being a team player & to downplay the significance of the lone hero, a sentiment & philosophy meant to keep The Corporation’s subjects complacent, Caan’s heroic sports star threatens to disrupt that complacency when he refuses to step out of the spotlight and the executives who run the show conspire to rig the game in in order to force him out with the in-the-arena violence. By the time this comes to a head, bodies are on fire & piled on the court, but Caan keeps skating on & putting the ball in the hole. I like the central idea of a bloodsport keeping the common people’s heroics in check by encouraging groupthink, but the film does a much more compelling job establishing that story in the rollerball arena than it does in the lavish boardrooms & penthouses that languidly eat up the other half of its bloated runtime.

There may never be a better time for a Rollerball remake. Not only are remakes in general a hot commodity, but if you recast Caan’s lead role with a female teen you’ll have instant YA profits waiting to pour in (although I suppose it might’ve been a better bet to get it greenlit around the time of the first Hunger Games film, seeing how Nerve unfortunately passed by with little fanfare this summer). Rollerball was already disastrously duplicated in the hellish cultural low point of the nu metal 00s, but the time was less ripe then. Throw some neon & electronica on those undeniably exciting & PG-13 violent roller derby sequences and you’d have a really fun summer blockbuster on your hands. The 1970s version we already have is a decent enough picture on their own, though, especially in its exhilarating scenes of futuristic murder sports. You might have to be an already-established fan of that kind of sci-fi dystopia to be won over by its ludicrous thrills; it’s not an exception within its genre, but more of a typified. It is a weird little action movie, though, one I probably should have watched a lot sooner than I did, given my affection for its highly specific subgenre.

-Brandon Ledet