A film review by Craig J. Koban June 17, 2016

RANK:  #21



2016, R, 86 mins.


Andy Samberg as Conner4Real  /  Jorma Taccone as Owen  /  Akiva Schaffer as Lawrence  /  Imogen Poots as Ashley  /  Maya Rudolph as Deborah

Directed by Jorma Taccone  and Akiva Schaffer/  Written by Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg, and Jorma Taccone

To take a page out of the vernacular of the main character of this film, POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING is a pretty dope mockumentary about a not-so-dope popstar that thinks he’s dope, later realizes that he’s not so dope, and then proudly reclaims his dopeness. 

Like all great works of comedic satire, POPSTAR displays a level of wink-wink affection for its targets while simultaneously and maliciously mocking them.  The film never shies away from enthusiastically going for the jugular of mainstream musicians and how they let unbridled narcissism get the better of them, but POPSTAR also intuitively understands the fence-hoping nature of celebrity fan culture, and how ubiquitous tastes for famous people can change at the drop of a hat.  

The film is the product of the comedy trio known as The Lonely Island, made up of Andy Samberg, Jorma Toccone, and Akiva Schaffer, three wondrously adept musicians in their own right, not to mention that they just also happen to be deliriously funny comedians.  They became famous for their pioneering Saturday Night Live digital shorts, which became viral sensations (outrageously funny parodies like “Dick in a Box” and “I’m On a Boat” cemented their fame).  They previously made the criminally underrated and little scene 2007 comedy HOT ROD, which was a frequently hysterical commentary on underground daredevil culture.  POPSTAR is a much richer and fuller bodied effort from the trio in the sense that its subject matter is more all-encompassing and the laughs more consistently hit bullseyes.   

Much like THIS IS SPINAL TAP! before it, POPSTAR is a talking heads-styled, fly-on-the-wall mockumentary that chronicles the rise and fall of a faux musician, the affectionately named Conner4Real (Samberg, also co-writer and once again displaying ample fortitude at playing loveable losers that are dumber than a bag of hammers).  Conner was once an up-and-coming musical talent that was desperately trying to get noticed, but he hit critical and audience worshiping pay dirt when he formed a Beastie Boyz-esque group with his childhood buddies Owen (Taccone, also co-writer and co-director) and Lawrence (Schaffer, also co-writer and co-director).  The trio created The Style Boyz and broke into the industry with such chart topping sensations like “Karate Boy” and the even more entertaining sounding “Donkey Roll.”  It became clear early on, though, that it was Conner that was getting most of the attention and would mostly likely break off on his own solo career.  Self-anointed dopeness awaited him, and the group soon became no more. 



Conner soon began his solo career as Conner4Real, with his uber loyal BFF in Owen by his side serving as his DJ, but Lawrence took the break-up so hard that he all but disappeared off the pop culture radar and became a farmer…of what exactly, the film humorously doesn’t initially specify (Lawrence spends most of his time marking hysterically inept wood sculptures).  Lawrence has always felt jaded about his relationship with Conner, especially considering that it appears that he did not receive proper writing credit on an award winning single that Conner apparently took all the mad props for, leaving Lawrence resentful about the industry as a whole.  After the release of his first solo album "Thriller…Also," Conner hits the big time, but he soon gets a wake-up call on the perils of instant fame when his newest album fails miserably with audiences and critics (one review gives it a negative four stars, while Rolling Stone Magazine bestowed upon it a more forgiving, but equally wretched shit emoji out of four).  Pathetically failing to understanding where he went wrong, Conner goes on the offensive to reclaim his industry mojo, with reliably lackluster results.

POPSTAR is the kind of comedy that fully understands its unique brand of wanton absurdity and just…sort of…swings for the fences with a never look back conviction and momentum.  The film is awe-inspiringly ludicrous at times, but it never wears out its welcome (at a nimble and swift 86 minutes, it knows the precise value of pacing and timing for comedy, something that the two-hour bloat-fests of Judd Apatow as of late don’t understand).   It’s abundantly clear that The Lonely Island are ostensibly honing in their satiric crosshairs at celebrities like Justin Bieber and his slavishly self-serving doc NEVER SAY NEVER, but POPSTAR has ample fun scornfully taking shots at the music industry as a whole and how modern popstars are born less out of natural talent and more out of being remarkably adept at viral promotion.  The film wisely evokes the corrosive levels of artificiality that permeates the modern musical landscape and it never once pulls its punches at lampooning it...and that's why it's an infectious riot throughout.

Conner is a fascinating case study.  He’s a person that’s so egregiously full of himself and treats everyone around with such throwaway levels of disdain that, if played by anyone other than Samberg, he would have come off as venomously dislikeable.  However, the film’s razor sharp writing and Samberg’s miraculously attuned and oddly endearing performance makes it hard to dislike this egotistical goofball.  Conner is, deep down, a good soul, but he's a bumbling moron that constantly allows his celebrity stature to get the better of him.  That, and he surrounds himself with posses of supporters that are simply too frightened to tell him when he’s wrong.  In many ways, he's an ultimate victim of being so limitlessly dimwitted that he simply doesn’t know any better.  When he visits the Anne Frank Museum, in one instance, and takes a dump in the display’s toilet for the purposes of riffing on a cheap gag from ACE VENTURA, he thinks it’s a hoot despite being completely oblivious to Frank’s hellish backstory.  His other feeble attempts at topical social commentary in his music are also side-splittingly inappropriate, especially one song called “Equal Rights” that preaches to the choir of gay marriage rights while not-so-subtly revealing his own aggressive homophobia.   

The on-stage musical numbers embedded in the film are small toe-tapping masterpieces of preposterousness.  They not only help plausibly sell the illusion of Conner’s concert dominance on tour (the footage feels eerily authentic despite its farcical overtones), but also reinforces him as being laughably out of touch with just how vain he really has become.  I howled repeatedly listening to the lyrics of insanely ironic tunes like “I’m So Humble” and had a really hard time containing my laughter during “Mona Lisa,” which is a juvenile Renaissance art critique pathetically masquerading as a pop tune (it contains the matter-of-fact lyrics, “Mona Lisa…you’re an overrated piece of shit” and having others that hyperbolically compare Leonardo da Vinci’s work to that of a Garbage Pail Kids trading card).  The laughs don’t end with Conner’s on and off-stage shenanigans, though; The Lonely Island also has a ball skewering the head-shaking phoniness of celebrity tabloid shows like TMZ, which features Will Arnett lending his own brand of go-for-broke lunacy sending up Harvey Levin’s insatiable oral fixation with straws and drinks. 

There’s a litany of celebrity cameos in the film to help cement the veracity of this fake world within this fake documentary, some playing themselves reciting platitudes on how Conner’s music changed their own careers, whereas others play made-up characters (one particularly famous popstar shows up in a terrific cameo as Conner’s chef that has an unhealthy obsession with ensuring that his carrots are cut to perfection).  Some other moments in the film could be easily misinterpreted as being tasteless and puerile, such as one scandalous moment involving Conner and a raging male fanboy that's demanding a vital part of his anatomy be signed by him that’s borderline pornographic, but too silly to be construed as such.  It also could be argued that the arc of Conner going from pop culture hero to zero and back to hero again (with a little help from his Style Boyz friends) is a predictable one that won’t leave anyone guessing.  Yet, minor nitpicks like that ultimately don’t matter, because POPSTAR is a stupendously assured piece of shrewd satire that understands the whole eye-rollingly spiteful nature of celebrity culture and the incessant and idiotic need for some stars to reduce their humanity down to an easily consumable brand.  The film is never mean-spirited, though.  Conner is not a bad guy.  Underneath his dopeness, the dude’s got a heart.  For real. 



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