The Lonely Island’s ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’ Lands Just Shy of Comic Transcendence

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The Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping feels very much like an 86-minute SNL Digital Short, which is both a compliment and a complaint. It’s crisply made, moves fast, faithfully replicates the aesthetics of its satirical targets, and is packed with jokes. It also finds its premise stretched fairly thin by the second hour, and never really finds a way to reconfigure itself beyond its central joke, missing some juicy opportunities along the way. But when it’s funny, it’s really funny, so you probably won’t mind.

Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone star and write (the latter two co-direct) as the Style Boyz, a Beastie Boyz-style bad-boy white hip-hop group who go through a bitter break-up when Kid Conner (Samberg) becomes the fan and media favorite. Rechristened Conner4Real, he anoints Owen (Taccone) his DJ/producer, puts out a massive solo album, and uses his non-stop social media presence to cultivate a huge, enthusiastic fan base. Popstar begins as he’s about to launch his follow-up album, CONNquest – on which he insists he “personally wrote every song,” and employed the services of 100 producers for its 17 tracks – and embark on a world tour.

Like any good Spinal Tap heir, Schaffer and Taccone craft Popstar in a mock-documentary style – albeit a more specific one, that of the self-generated, brand-forwarding bio-doc, a la Katy Perry: Part of Me and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. And there’s a decidedly Bieber-esque flavor to Samberg’s Conner, from his fashion modeling (for White Butt Jeans) to his “introspective” interviews to an unfortunate incident at the Anne Frank house. And there are echoes of other artists as well (their Macklemore parody, a marriage equality song in which Conner can’t stop referencing his own heterosexuality, is scorching), though I can safely say, as someone all but unplugged from current pop music, that most of the jokes land even if your awareness of the target is vague.

And, in the style of the best spoof movies, the jokes are so rapid-fire that one missed reference won’t linger long anyway. The gags here vary from big set pieces to satisfying runners to tiny, absurd touches; this viewer most appreciated the latter, like when Bill Hader’s roadie explains how he spends his free time “flatlining,” inspired by the movie Flatliners, and there’s just something about the way he off-handedly continues, “directed by Joel Schumacher, shot by Jan De Bont” that is totally irresistible. And the sly background gags are some of the movie’s best; note how every time we see a concert marquee, the hot opener who’s brought on to juice ticket sales is taking up more real estate. (Chris Redd is particularly good as said opener, presumably the only hardcore rapper to name-drop Martha Plimpton in his flow.)

As a satire of the current, jerry-rigged music industry, Popstar lands some punches; the sharpest section concerns his search for a corporate sponsor for the tour, landing on an appliance manufacturer that will pipe his tracks into refrigerators and microwaves. (“Nobody doin’ appliance shit!” one of his lackeys assures him.) When Owen worries about selling out, Conner puts him at ease. “There’s no such thing as selling out anymore!” he insists. “And if you don’t, people wonder if nobody asked you!”

Their jabs at other areas of the pop culture landscape are similarly well-aimed; a send-up of that unwatchable TMZ television show, with Will Arnett playing a soda-sipping, soulless husk of a Harvey Levin clone, is particularly welcome. But like the Samberg-fronted 7 Days in Hell , it rarely feels like they’re taking full advantage of the satirical opportunities of these documentaries; aside from a couple of hyperbolic title cards (“It is the most anticipated album of the decade”), they don’t get much mileage of these films’ blatantly self-promotional nature. And there’s something weirdly off-putting about the use of conventional opening credits in a fake documentary, but now I’m nitpicking.

The crew’s previous attempt at a big-screen vehicle, 2007’s Hot Rod, was a box-office failure that subsequently found a cult audience; this time, they’ve connected with producer Judd Apatow, and Popstar is in many ways a comic cousin to his 2007 music biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (with Tim Meadows providing a bridge as Conner’s manager). That film ultimately works in a way Popstar never quite manages, thanks to its broader canvas – it could reinvent itself as its hero did. There’s about an hour of dynamite material here, but you can’t release an hourlong movie, so the filler has to go in too; unfortunately for the momentum of the picture, much of that filler comes towards the end, particularly in a big climactic awards-show number that just isn’t funny (and which makes the mistake, increasingly prevalent in Apatow productions, of thinking it’s hilarious for an unexpected celebrity to merely to show up, rather than show up and do something funny).

But what they clearly took from the picture is the realization that, celebrity avatar or no, their central character also had to be a person. And if the laughs run thinner in the back half-hour, they manage to find some heart in the relationship between these three guys (and, presumably, some personal connection to the tension of a charismatic front man plucked out for solo stardom). Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping doesn’t quite have the discipline or take-no-prisoners spirit of a great spoof comedy. But it comes awfully close.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is out Friday.