POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING
Directors: Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone
Cast: Andy Samberg, Tim Meadows, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, Sarah Silverman, Chris Redd, Imogen Poots
MPAA Rating: (for some graphic nudity, language throughout, sexual content and drug use)
Running Time: 1:26
Release Date: 6/3/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 2, 2016
"I'm so humble," Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) sings, and he has evidence for his supposed modesty: "People say I'm so unpretentious for a genius." When he performs the song live, the audience is treated to the sight of Conner posing and singing along with a hologram of himself—then two holograms of himself, before being surrounded by a gaggle of holograms of himself.
The gag may be obvious, but it's still funny. There's a clarity of purpose to the joke. It uses the weird trend of spectacle over performance in modern concerts (That's not a new phenomenon, of course, but the technology has become better, allowing for more garish displays than just the pyrotechnics of old—also making it less likely that someone's hair will catch on fire). The song has the reliable comic premise of cognitive dissonance, and the songwriters don't hold back on it ("I'm so ordinary that it's truly quite extraordinary," and "I don't complain when my private jet is subpar").
Mostly, though, it's a quick, easy, and effective way of solidifying a character. The song and the show serve as the embodiment of what makes Conner tick: He's an egomaniac with such a miniscule degree of self-awareness that he has no clue that he is, indeed, an egomaniac.
Where does one take the joke from there? It's never clear if Samberg and directors Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, the trio who wrote the screenplay (as well as the original songs as their comedy music group the Lonely Island), know the answer.
The amusingly and redundantly titled Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping comes out of the gate strong. The premise is solid. The early jokes are a full-frontal assault on the superficiality of an industry that long ago traded artistry for record sales, as well as the over-inflated egos of some personalities within that industry, who have learned that name recognition and social media presence are more important to success than making, you know, good music.
Conner is an exaggeration of that type, although only to a certain extent. He takes to the web to post videos of himself doing mundane things or simply commenting on those activities after the fact ("I just ate a taco"). The music is secondary to the status of fame (Take a late joke involving confusion over which documentary crew belongs to which celebrity).
In fact, one of the movie's more astute observations is how music becomes a means of maintaining fame, as opposed to being the means to the end of just creating music. Here, Conner writes a song about marriage equality simply so that he can get attention for taking on a social issue. Of course, the issue itself has been resolved, making the song irrelevant. Besides, Conner ends up spending an entire verse trying to confirm his heterosexuality, punctuating his calls for already-achieved justice with the proclamation that he's "not gay."
All of this material is in the early part of the movie, which takes the form of a faux documentary about Conner's downfall following the release of his second album (He "wrote" all 17 songs—with 100 producers). He was once part of a boy band but moved on to a solo career.
He kept Owen (Taccone), one of his former bandmates, on staff as his DJ (Owen has an array of equipment that is just for show, since he runs the music for a concert through an MP3 player). Lawrence (Schaffer), the third member, quit out of frustration and has taken up farming in Colorado. Conner's manager (Tim Meadows) is adept at circular arguments to keep his client happy while still getting what he wants (As a result, his opinion on record sales changes completely within a matter of 10 seconds). Conner's publicist (Sarah Silverman) agrees to a corporate tie-in for the album's release, in which household appliances will play his songs whenever they're used.
The jokes early on are clear, have a specific target, and, well, actually feature punch lines. The same cannot be said of the material as the movie's single-joke premise wears thin. There comes a point—after the songs lose their bite (They're intentionally wrong-headed, such as one that mixes kinky sex with patriotism, but still, apparently, popular enough to mostly fill a stadium) and all the targets have been hit—when the movie begins to falter.
The movie's early efforts to satirically skewer the contemporary pop-music factory give way to gags that are simply random for the sake of being random. Sandberg, Schaffer, and Taccone begin to coast on absurdity. There are scenes here that feel assembled in the moment, such as Conner proposing to his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) in the presence of wolves and the singer Seal. The joke is that the singer's voice has an adverse effect on the animals, although the scene is too busy establishing a rationale for its setup for the gag to work. There are other scenes, such as Conner donning prosthetic makeup as a disguise, that don't even have a payoff.
It should be easy to mock a persona as dunderheaded as Conner and an industry that is so transparently artificial, and when Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping pursues those specific targets, it thrives. One has to wonder why Sandberg, Schaffer, and Taccone stray into the bizarre. It only makes the job unnecessarily harder.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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