“Popstar” brings the jokes, lacks the bite

“Popstar” brings the jokes, lacks the bite June 3, 2016
Images courtesy of Universal.
Images courtesy of Universal.

At the end of the day, the only thing that matters about some comedies is whether they made you laugh.

I can say upfront that “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” did, often very hard. The movie throws every gag it can think of at the wall, and a surprising number stick. Lonely Island’s digital shorts were the funniest and most subversive thing about “Saturday Night Live” for several years, and “Popstar” generates laughs that are just as big, even if it lacks their bite and focus.

For the uninitiated, the Lonely Island is a musical comedy trio comprised of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer. Samberg, a featured player on “Saturday Night Live,” went on to star in the Fox comedy series “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” while Schaffer and Taccone directed, respectively, “Hot Rod” and “Macgruber,” two very funny films that bombed at the box office but found new life as cult hits. “Popstar” shouldn’t face such dire straits. Produced by hit-maker Judd Apatow, written by the trio, and co-directed by Schaffer and Taccone, its mixture of silly songs, superstar cameos and juvenile gags should appeal to the audience that made Lonely Island an online sensation.

The film is structured as a documentary about Conner4Real (Samberg), a former boy band member who’s since catapulted himself to superstardom with his debut album, “Thriller Also.” Accompanied by an endless entourage of cooks, drivers, turtle handlers and stylists, Conner is preparing to launch his second album, “Connquest.” His former band, The Style Boys, has long broken up, with one member (Taccone) serving as Conner’s deejay and the other (Schaffer) now a farmer with a grudge against his old friend. Conner quickly learns that pursuing success on his own might not be so easy, as the album  gets horrible reviews (“Rolling Stone” gives it the poop emoji), the arenas stop selling out and Conner finds himself a pariah, even as his publicist (Sarah Silverman) and manager (Tim popstar posterMeadows) try to give it all a happy spin.

It’s easy to dismiss Lonely Island’s shtick as juvenile, given just how centered they are on sex gags and penis references. Certainly, with song titles like “D*** in a Box,” I can understand the sentiment. But the joke is that their songs are often lampooning the hyper-macho and sex-obsessed bros, going over the top to poke fun at guys whose only goal is to get laid and whose greatest fear is that someone might think they’re gay. Their targets are the rappers who think shooting a music video on a boat makes them badass, or the dudes who think their penises are literally a gift to women everywhere. Here, Conner is the target for Lonely Island’s humor, as his gentle dumbness results in an anthem to his own humility, an ode to equal rights where he constantly stresses that he’s not gay, and a love song where he compares bedroom activities to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. It’s puerile and crass, but there are brains behind it. The joke never feels mean because of the sweet stupidity Samberg brings to the role. Conner may be proud, but he’s not a jerk, simply a guy who obtained stardom so fast that his view of reality is hilariously warped. The film’s finale, in which (spoiler alert?) Conner and the Style Boys reunite, manages to combine the sweet bro-ness Apatow’s films are known for with the group’s love for absurdity.

And yes, there is a gag involving the male anatomy. And while I might be ashamed, I have to fess up that it made me laugh quite a bit.

The film captures Lonely Island’s absurd brand of humor, and delivers laughs with an almost exhausting momentum. The film clocks in at under 90 minutes but feels overstuffed with jokes because of how quickly the gags come. There are blisteringly funny musical numbers, quips about how Conner’s turtle suffers from “soggy bone syndrome,” and a marriage proposal  that’s thwarted by wolves. The film doesn’t stop to take a breath, rocketing past jokes about Conner’s celebrity-obsessed mother, roadies who like to “flatline” and a wonderful running joke about a “TMZ”-style news magazine. And when the film’s not throwing jokes at you, it’s bringing in pretty much every major music and movie star to cameo. Many of these feature the stars playing themselves, and a few of the “gets” are quite funny. The film moves so briskly that the guests never outstay their welcome; one popular comedian has an appearance playing bagpipes that lasts maybe two seconds. The brevity of it — he never says a word — makes it even funnier. And in addition to Samberg, the cast is very funny. Silverman’s knack for undercutting a line with a quick joke is on full display, and I love the deadpan of Tim Meadows. As Hunter, Conner’s opening act who just might be insane, Chris Redd steals the entire show with just a wide-eyed stare.

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Of course, the highlights come whenever the film stops for a song, and I have to imagine Lonely Island’s fans will be downloading the soundtrack. The group is musically talented, sticking their jokes inside hooks that are just as catchy as anything on the radio (I’ve had several of the film’s songs in my head ever since the screening). And lyrically, the film continues their knack for finding an outrageous concept and committing to it, pulling absurdities and non sequiturs out of each verse. While there’s nothing as sublime as “I’m on a Boat” or “Motherlover,” most of the songs are performed in concert scenes that thrum with energy and feature several great gags (the light-and-sound-producing helmet Conner makes his deejay wear is incredible).

But the songs also point to the flaw that keeps the movie from greatness. While the music has no problem latching onto a concept and wringing every joke out of it, “Popstar” is too intent on throwing out the next gag to latch its teeth into a concept and really bite down. There’s some gentle skewering of the music industry, such as a somewhat funny dig at U2’s attempt to give music away for free, but the film keeps most of the jokes surface level and never really digs in to the absurdities of the money-and-image-driven music industry or teenage obsession with pop stars. The exception is the “TMZ” gag, which finds the news crew eventually examining the emptiness of their lives, punctuated by the sight of Will Arnett drinking from cups of ever-increasing sizes.

The film also never really is clear about what people think of Conner. His music is full of profane, bizarre lyrics, but the crowd seems to eat them up like any Top 40 hit. Sometimes it appears the the public is sick of him, but other times he’s nearly mobbed by fans. The film’s funny enough to cover up for these shortcomings, but it never quite achieves the deadpan brilliance of “Spinal Tap” or the pitch-perfect parody of “Walk Hard” (also produced by Apatow and also featuring a very funny performance by Meadows). It’s not that “Popstar’s” not enjoyable; what’s frustrating is that with a little more work, it could have been great.

But hey, I’ll settle for funny. And I’m assuming most audiences will, too. “Popstar” might not be cannon-worthy, but it’s got a beat and you can laugh to it.


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