Film Review: “Popstar” — A Chart-busting Comedy

Popstar’s silliness is monumental, and wonderful.

A scene from "Popstar."

A scene from “Popstar.”

By Betsy Sherman

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, directed by Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer. At AMC Assembly Row, Somerville, MA

The trio known as The Lonely Island—Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer—are mighty, mighty song parodists. Their comic Digital Shorts were often the high point of Saturday Night Live broadcasts. The new, extremely funny Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping isn’t their first experience with the big screen—Schaffer directed the Samberg-starrer Hot Rod and Taccone the unexpectedly brilliant SNL adaptation MacGruber—but it’s the first that didn’t originate with someone else’s idea. The threesome wrote it, with Taccone and Schaffer co-directing.

The movie skewers the puffed-up tour documentary, replicating the genre’s adrenalin-laced excitement and twisting all those platitudes and all that gratitude (I owe it all to the fans) for maximum comic effect. As dazzlingly smart-stoopid as their albums and videos, it’s densely layered with jokes. And if, at least on first viewing, the whole doesn’t quite equal the sum of the parts, or the execution doesn’t always fulfill the hilarity of the ideas, it could be because Samberg and company have set such high expectations. Multiple viewings may be in order for everything to gel.

Samberg stars as a character who’s heavy on swagger, light on brain cells. The mock documentary’s subject is Conner4Real (actual name Conner Friel), who became a solo star after the acrimonious breakup of the Beastie Boys-styled rap group he was in with his childhood friends, called the Style Boyz. Determined to keep his fame and fortune on the rise, he opens his life to his social media followers (sharing the most intimate of waxing sessions) and capitalizes, in his boneheaded way, on the trends of the moment (a video for his song celebrating same-sex marriage keeps upping the number of bikini babes around him as he reminds listeners that he’s “Not gay!”). It’s a perfect performance: in Samberg’s grin, you can just about see Conner’s shallow trough of consciousness.

A movie of the tour for Connquest, Conner’s follow-up to his smash debut album, is being made by a British documentarian who is heard a few times off-screen. The seemingly endless entourage features a wrangler for Conner’s pet turtle and includes Style Boyz bandmate Owen (Taccone) as his onstage DJ, manager Harry (Tim Meadows, rising above his usual blandness) and publicist Paula (Sarah Silverman), who says she wants to make sure that Conner4Real is everywhere, like gravity and clinical depression.

Bad reviews for the album are followed by a PR nightmare: sponsorship by an appliance company, wherein Conner’s music plays whenever a refrigerator or washing machine door is opened, is responsible for a massive power outage. Scrambling to fill arenas, they bring in young hip-hop star Hunter the Hungry (the kinetic Chris Redd) as an opening act. A peppy montage shows Conner and Hunter becoming best friends, and Owen feeling abandoned. Meanwhile, documentary cameras capture the third Style Boy, Lawrence (Schaffer—sadly, not an expressive actor), moping at his farm in Colorado. As disasters mount and publicity stunts backfire, the tour becomes less a Connquest than a surrender. The increasingly thin-skinned Conner wonders whom he can trust, and all points towards the maxim that old friends are the best friends (a trajectory that lent heart to comedies such as the similarly Judd Apatow-produced Superbad and to the big daddy of the genre, This Is Spinal Tap).

Neatly packaged in just under 90 minutes, Popstar machine-guns an array of targets. Rampant music-biz narcissism begets a traffic jam among crews making documentaries on different artists. The gossip press is taken down, both in its fawning (an E! crew is there at the marriage proposal Conner hopes will get the public back on his side) and gotcha varieties (some of the biggest laughs come from a TMZ parody). It’s filled with cameos, as celebrities are variously interviewees within the documentary (Nas, Questlove, RZA, Ringo Starr, Simon Cowell), performers who join Conner4Real in song (Usher, Emma Stone) or play brief supporting roles (TLI video veteran Justin Timberlake is the caterer who puts 110% into preparing Conner’s crudité trays).

Further highlights include Conner lovingly interacting with holograms of himself while singing “I’m So Humble” (and rhyming “Dikembe Mutombo” with “big pot o’ gumbo”) to his having the guts, in another tune, to take down that overrated “Mona Lisa.” A trademark TLI strength, making lists, is shown off in the finale “Incredible Thoughts” and Lawrence’s ill-fated solo track “Things in My Jeep.” There’s raunch galore, but also fluffy delights, like naming Conner’s actress fiancée Ashley Wednesday. Popstar’s silliness is monumental, and wonderful.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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