First things first, The Lonely Island’s “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is not nearly as horrendous as the trailers made it look. In fact, for what it’s worth, the film is consistently funny, frequently gonzo and more often than not, on the mark in its attempts to critique modern pop culture. That’s not to say it’s the first great comedy of 2016 either. In reality, it’s just an extended — admittedly hilarious — “Saturday Night Live” skit.
Following the release and backlash against mega-pop star Conner4Real’s second album — played with the utmost commitment and gleeful relish by Andy Samberg — “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” tells a typical rise-fall-rise again story, albeit one that bursts with more endless cameos than any recent film.
Conner became famous as a member of a has-been ‘90s band called the Style Boyz, along with his childhood best friends, DJ Owen (Jorma Taccone) and lyricist Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer). The audience is clued into how popular the Style Boyz were from endless guest appearances through docustyle interviews (a clever homage to “This is Spinal Tap”) with Nas, A$AP Rocky, Questlove, Ringo Starr, Mariah Carey, Simon Cowell, Arcade Fire, DJ Khaled and a long list of other famous musicians/actors/people willing to discuss how legendary the Beastie Boys-esque Style Boyz really were. And it’s through these hilarious, but played deadly serious interviews that the film gets itself on a slightly dumb, completely irrelevant and compulsively watchable foot. Watching the always droll Cowell discuss Conner as “really the real dude” is surprisingly gut-busting.
This solo career allows Conner to use his popularity to create hit singles like “I’m So Humble,” a Yeezus-sized ego trip of how periodically Conner tries to be humble in between excessively flaunting his money. Then there’s “Equal Rights,” a rip on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love,” in which Conner says he supports gay marriage, yet constantly reminds his listeners he’s straight with subliminal lyrics about sports, chicken wings and taking women to bed on the daily.
These not-so-subtle references to modern day pop stars are where the film begins to shine. Despite the Grammys lathering “Same Love” in gold, the song lacked authenticity. And while Conner’s version is more blatantly problematic, it’s all the more biting and comical as a result.
If there’s one thing the film does well throughout, it’s the way the film blends both the fictional world Conner exists in with the modern pop scene. Because of this blend, the film feels parodic and satirical more than the lowest common denominator comedy found in an Adam Sandler film. Take Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd), a Tyler, the Creator-type rapper who opens for Conner and causes repeated on-stage shenanigans. The audience knows exactly who’s being called out in the film’s target. It’s precise, kind of edgy and just funny.
Even with the positives, the film never overcomes the feeling that it is really just an extended made-for-TV skit. Will you laugh? Sure. When it ends, will you remember any of it except a few standout scenes? Likely not.
Then there are small quirks to the film that just fall flat. The docustyle set up used in the interviews with the celebrities seems to remain mostly throughout the film, as the characters that inhabit the world constantly discuss the presence of the camera. Sometimes it’s funny, as it seems to be making fun of the idea, and sometimes the film is too reliant on it because the script seems to be wearing thin at certain parts.
The story itself is entirely predictable if you have seen any Judd Apatow-produced film within the last 10 years. We all know the endgame within the first 10 minutes. Had the The Lonely Island spent as much time trying to feel fresh with its plot as it did its pointed, in-the-know jokes about pop music, the film could have been something truly special. Instead, it remains a funny, worthwhile, if unoriginal comedy.
“Popstar” isn’t the platinum smash The Lonely Island would have hoped for, yet it’s not the throwaway one-hit wonder that many expected. But maybe that’s good enough for a debut.
Levi Hill covers film. Contact him at [email protected].