Apparently there are people who think that Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a witty satire of pop celebrity instead of a soulless hodgepodge of star cameos and gags that go nowhere. Could they have as little taste as the onscreen fans of the vain, moronic title character, “Conner4Real,” played by Andy Samberg? Or have we entered a new phase of pop culture, in which audiences are worshiping hype itself, however manufactured?
Ponder that during frequent lulls in this mockumentary, which clearly riffs on the careers of two Justins: Bieber (shown in a single shot at an awards ceremony) and Timberlake, who has a small role as a goofy personal chef. When we meet Samberg's phenom, he has broken away from the pop trio the Style Boyz to become a superstar in his own right. As Conner puts the finishing touches on the “most anticipated album of the decade,” talking heads Simon Cowell, Usher, Seal, Nas, Questlove, and many others effuse over the ways in which their lives were changed by his greatness.
Popstar is co-written (with Samberg) and directed by Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, who also play Conner’s former boy-bandmates. Taccone’s Owen has remained a part of Conner’s entourage since the trio’s dissolution, working as a deejay, while Schaffer’s Lawrence — the author of the music and catchphrases for which Conner took credit — is now a bitter, bearded farmer. Here’s the narrative thrust: After the humiliating flop of Conner’s new album and the desperation move of drafting an ostentatiously belligerent rapper (Chris Redd) to help him fill half-empty stadiums, the prospect of a Style Boyz reunion looms. Will the humbled Conner reach out to the seething Lawrence? Will history be made at the upcoming Poppy awards?
Comparisons are inevitable between Popstar and This Is Spinal Tap, the immutable gold standard in music mockumentaries. This one’s no threat. Much of Spinal Tap was improvised by gifted clowns and then edited down to the choicest bits. Popstar is, as far as I can tell, wholly scripted. It gets the bulk of its laughs from the mere fact that Cowell, Nas, etc., have agreed to appear to talk about a fictional character, not from anything anyone says. The aura of self-congratulation is almost as thick as in Zoolander 2. (I’m going to walk out of the next movie I see in which Jimmy Fallon as himself interviews an actor in character. Fallon is even harder to watch on the big screen than the small.)
The filmmakers are better at sending up music videos — the lowest-hanging fruits — and there are two decent efforts: Conner’s paean to LGBT tolerance that evolves into a desperate attempt to assure his listeners that he is not personally gay, and a grandiose sex (grandio-sex?) number in which he likens the way the U.S. government fucked Bin Laden to the way he fucked his latest conquest. Both would be a lot better if they were cut short. Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone don’t know how to develop gags, only repeat them.
Actually, they don’t seem to know which gags to repeat and which to drop. There’s an okay bit where we meet the 32 people on Conner’s personal staff, among them a guy who “punches [Conner] in the nuts to remember where he came from.” It would be nice to see that nut-puncher again, if only to suggest that, down deep, Conner knows he has lost touch with his humanity. But there’s nothing in Samberg’s face except self-absorption and entitlement. He doesn’t respect Conner enough to make him an interesting fool. You’d have a far merrier time watching Justin Bieber gush in interviews about that magnitude of his love for his beliebers. There’s an Anne Frank House joke in Popstar, but nothing can top the psychotic self-centeredness of what Bieber actually wrote in the Frank House guestbook.
Popstar squanders Sarah Silverman as a motherly publicist and Joan Cusack as an unmotherly mother. The only boffo scene is a brief Bill Hader cameo as a roadie who likes to “flatline” in his spare time: Hader has more effervescence than anyone in the movie, and his insane “hobby” is just plausible enough in the ecstasy-seeking world of pop to make you wonder. I’d see a whole film about the adventures of Hader’s desperate-for-transcendence roadie. Unlike Popstar, it might actually go somewhere.