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Review: Lonely Island hits the bullseye with an easy target in ‘Popstar’

06.04.16 10 months ago

If you are excited by the prospect of a Lonely Island movie, I have good news for you. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a Lonely Island movie in every way, packed with music and jokes. At 90 minutes, it moves fast, and it offers up some laser-sharp satire. If there”s any overall problem with the film, it is that they”ve made a very specific satire of a target that is so ridiculous it almost resists parody.

It”s easy to just make the comparison to This Is Spinal Tap, the mockumentary that launched Rob Reiner”s career as a director, but Popstar is a reaction to a very different kind of film than Spinal Tap was. You have to go back and look at films like The Song Remains The Same or The Kids Are Alright to understand what the culture was that Spinal Tap targeted, while modern music documentaries have a very different aesthetic and purpose. The Justin Bieber documentary that is this film”s primary target was fascinating because it”s such an obvious attempt to create a mythology around a pop star. The Katy Perry documentary was even better at what it did, but it contained a moment that I found particularly interesting. So much of Katy Perry: Part Of Me is focused on showing what a fun and frothy person she is that including the moment where she learns that she”s getting divorced over a cell phone was almost jarring. It punctured the image completely, and for one moment in the film, we get a glimpse of this real person and her real life and some real pain, and then SNAP! We”re right back into fantasy land. There”s one moment as she”s under the stage, ready to go on, and she has to shake all of it off, that says more about what it”s like to create one of these larger-than-life personae and then have to live it even when you don”t feel like doing it than any think piece could, and it feels accidental, like it snuck through.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping tells the story of Conner4Real, who started as part of a rap trio called the Style Boyz. They were kids together, and they were real-life friends who just started to rap as part of their relationship. When they were first discovered, Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer), Owen (Jorma Taccone), and Conner (Andy Samberg) were inseparable. The more famous they got, the more things started to tilt towards Conner, who is a natural front-man. When there”s a power struggle between Lawrence and Conner, the band breaks up, and Conner releases a solo album that establishes him as a major instant star. He keeps Owen with him as his DJ, building the beats that support the hit songs that make Conner filthy rich, but Lawrence quits and moves to middle America, where he becomes a farmer. As the film opens, they”re counting down to the release of Conner”s second album, as well as his massive world tour, and it”s a study of a guy poised for superstardom making every wrong move.

That”s where it quickly becomes clear that the Lonely Island guys aren”t just interested in doing a parody. They want to tell their own story, using that parody as a springboard. As a result, how you feel about the film will depend largely on whether or not you feel any investment in the possible reunion of the Style Boyz. They want to land some genuine emotional beats near the end of the movie, and in order to do that, they have to tone down some of the more outlandish jokes that mark the film”s first half. The notion of what the reality is here seems to shift from scene to scene depending on what joke they”re trying to land.

Don”t get me wrong. Popstar is very, very funny, and often. Like with Shane Black”s The Nice Guys, I wish I hadn”t seen many of the things shown to me in the trailers, but that”s not the film”s fault. It”s more a statement on how hard it is to strike the right balance in film marketing. With a film like this, I almost wish they”d use alternate takes and deleted gags to sell the movie, preserving some of the secrets of the movie so that the jokes had a chance to hit me cold. What I found most compelling about the film, aside from the jokes, was the way it plays as a sort of heightened comic mirror of what happened with the Lonely Island. Samberg has become the most high-profile of the three of them, while both Schaffer and Taccone work in a more behind-the-scenes capacity now. The film is about Conner4Real slowly realizing the value of his original creative relationship, and slowly repairing the relationships he threw away as he became famous. The difference, of course, is that it”s obvious the Lonely Island still have a terrific creative chemistry, and there”s so much new music here that it”s almost overwhelming. There are some great songs, including a Macklemore riff that is painfully accurate, and writing good terrible songs is not a skill to be scoffed at.

I have grown more and more fond of Samberg as a performer, and at the same time, I think he”s gotten better and better at what he does. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been a big help, because the demands of playing a real person who has to be likable from week to week has softened out some of what I didn”t love about him as a comic actor. It also helps that he is surrounded by a cast that would make anyone better simply by virtue of playing off of them week to week. I think Taccone is a fiendishly funny performer, and whatever you think of Land Of The Lost, his work as Chaka was deranged and inspired. He plays Owen as a devoted friend and the sort of North Star of the group, the guy who never stops believing in his friends. Schaffer is the most pleasant surprise of the film, giving a performance that ties everything together. He”s the one with the deep resentment, and he”s the one who knows the truth about the insecurity that drives Conner. It sounds like they really ladle on the emotional stuff, but they don”t. Overall, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping just spends its energy lancing one target after another. There”s a great running TMZ riff, a deranged Joan Cusack performance, some very sly work by Imogen Poots, a terrific supporting role for Chris Redd, and more cameos, more expertly deployed than any comedy in recent memory. I found Danny Strong and Justin Timberlake to be quiet scene-stealers, Bill Hader has one of the strangest and most film-nerd specific digressions I can name, and I hope everyone high fived Martin Sheen at the end of his day of shooting.

Also, I”m pretty sure Judd Apatow committed a sex crime against my eyes.

Brandon Trost, the film”s cinematographer, is one of the most important players in comedy currently, and whatever kind of gag he”s asked to shoot in the film, he nails it. He”s got a knack for figuring out how to shoot a joke to not only emphasize performance but also to be efficient and keep things simple. I”ve watched him work, and he”s lightning fast. It”s one thing to have a D.P. who is good at doing what you ask him to do, but it”s invaluable to have a D.P. who understands why something is funny and who can add to that for you.

If you”re in the mood to laugh until various parts of you hurt for a multitude of reasons, then I have a feeling Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping will accomplish the goal. And then some.

The film is in theaters today.

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