Lonely Island Mockumentary Dances To Familiar Beats
In the spirit of the layered comedy that this just might be, let’s start this review of the new lowbrow music-biz satire Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping with considering a specific scene. Early in the film, the buffoonish main character superstar Conner4Real, checks out his ballyhooed new album’s online reviews. Like the film, the scene is full of legitimately funny gags, only to sputter into predictable lameness. (Note: This will be the only gag revealed here.)
Upon seeing that Pitchfork gave his album a score of -4, he shrugs it off because “that site can be snobby.” On to Rolling Stone, where they do star ratings. “No stars, just the [poo] emoji.” Finally, victory – a positive review trumpeting the brilliance of the album. Self satisfied, he checks the source: Something called “The Onion.”
Acknowledging the caveat that comedy is subjective, and one’s milage will vary, this is a chuckle-worthy finish to an otherwise funnier scene, even if most viewers could see the finishing punchline coming up Fifth Avenue. This is true even in light of This is Spinal Tap having already pioneered and perfected the artist-reacting-to-bad-reviews bit, with properly ordered build-up to boot, over 30 years ago.
For better or worse, nothing in Popstar warrants the extreme reactions that Conner4Real’s album generates. If anything, the movie is good for some disposable laughs before it dances off into forgettability. Viewers should be warned, however, that like co-director Jorma Taccone’s MacGruber back in 2010, this is a very R-rated film, content to let its genuine yuks coast on a thick bed of lazy f-bombs, crotch jokes, and even a brief detour into pot-head humor. All parties involved have proven themselves as capable of far better, but this is what we get this time.
Andy Samberg plays Conner4real as a transparent one-dimensional dope who’s only obsession is how dope he is. As a performer, we’re told he’s one of biggest names in showbiz. His arena tour is launching, his album is dropping, his future looks bright. If only he were bright enough to know that’s not the case. So, so far from being the case…
But to truly get at what makes Popstar worth talking about, we need to take a step back to see the bigger picture. At its core, Popstar is sold on itself as a cutting critique of today’s pop culture landscape. Is it?
It’s true that the pop life tends to have a finite shelf life. Even the artists know this, as they scramble to perpetually re-invent and repackage themselves in their vain continued efforts to feign relevance. Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake… Talented or not, the same rules apply.
Imagine, then, the finite relevance of a comedy mockumentary based upon such a pop star. Case in point, this film. It’s own shelf life shelf is practically being disassembled as it premieres. The film does an effective job of mocking today’s singing idols, demonstrating their own levels self absorption and bubble life as utterly narcissistic, phony and desperate. But will anyone care six months from now? Six weeks from now? Now? When the film mocks U2’s Apple invasion from a couple of years ago, the attempt feels both too “of the moment” and too “last year”.
Of course, the central nature of all of this is the new version of eternal truths about The Nature Of Fame: On one hand, Popstar has the structure and even the desire to be a kind of Spinal Tap for the post American Idol generation. Yet, the film is so terminally locked into the here and now that it’s placed itself into an echo chamber of comedic possibilities. It has its moments, but a cookie-cutter Behind the Music-style rise/fall/rise again structure as well as scads of comic padding keep the film merely treading water… Sometimes as desperately as its subject.
Which brings us to The Lonely Island. Three lifelong pals (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone) with a video camera and the skills to skew white-rapper masculinity in a daft and pointed way. Once upon a time, they were emerging web video sensations. When Samberg got hired by Saturday Night Live, he got to bring his buddies with him, leading the group to repeated viral video hits, and rejuvenating SNL for a new generation. Movies, award nominations, and general stardom followed. Their talent is real, worthy of the respect and attention they’ve earned. Nevertheless, in this day and age of chronically disposable pop culture, is there also a shelf life for an outfit like The Lonely Island?
Popstar has all the unfortunate trappings of a “yes” answer, even as it lands enough laughs to get by… in the moment. Like Zoolander 2 before it, it opts to mock the fame game by trotting out every famous friend in the guys’ combined contacts lists. They range from talking head interview style cutaways to actually interacting with the plot, however briefly. But, in the former category, do fake on-camera testimonials about the onetime greatness of these characters who were so clearly, even in their heyday, a moronic act, do any more than 1.) lay out groundwork for a stale story arc, and 2.) demonstrate what good sports people like Questlove, Mariah Carey and Ringo Starr are?
In the latter category, wherein stars play themselves in this film, does a disastrous marriage proposal involving Seal and a pack of wolves amount to more than another distractingly arbitrary set piece in a string of distractingly arbitrary set pieces? The ridiculously continuous stream of cameos threatens to become some sort of meta joke about today’s over-reliance on comedy cameos – but not quite. Some are fun, some are dull, but they are legion, and they do distract sufficiently.
In-between the parade of famous faces, there lingers what might just be a kind of skewered autobiographical element. Samberg plays the central character, Conner4Real, a pop sensation who rose to fame with his two buddies in a well remembered if, yes, moronic hip-hop group called The Style Boyz. Conner then went solo, breaking off with the most talented songwriter of the three (Schaffer) and reducing the other (Taccone) to a faux DJ complete with an outlandish oversized Daft Punk robotic head. His act is terrible, his songs are every kind of insipid, and his ship is quickly sinking. His manager is the only one who sees all of this. He’s played by Tim Meadows, bring a serviceable dose of much needed heart to every scene he’s in.
His eventual only hope is the get the old band back together, and rise again. (If that’s considered a spoiler, I’m sorry. But as George Harrison once said, “It’s been done.”). As the three Lonely Island guys have “re-united” for this film, following a rash of higher profile crash-and-burn projects (Samberg’s Adam Sandler movie, Taccone‘s MacGruber), it is interesting to consider the inside artistic meaning that might be here. Maybe.
Popstar is unlikely to score on anyone’s hit list at the end of the year, or beyond. But there is one other gag worth noting, one that cannot be spoiled. That is its subtitle, Never Stop Never Stopping. A spot-on perfect rift on the packaged, forced generic positivity spewed forth by every Justin Bieber/One Direction/Jonas Brothers type of act, its pure meaninglessness signals the movie’s own reach and reason: Not far, but funny – lowbrow and crass, but funny enough. The subtitle may be the best part, but the film doesn’t rate a poor -4 rating or a poo emoji, either.