Anyone who creates a comedy film with a major studio for big-screen distribution clearly wouldn’t mind making a splash at the box-office, but the guys behind Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping must have entered production knowing they were mounting something that was destined for “cult classic” status. Infused with the jackhammer blend of brazenly ironic satire and willfully nonsensical randomness that has come to define its creator-stars, the mock-pop trio of The Lonely Island, this raucous faux-documentary is built to be polarizing. Viewers will either dive in headfirst and revel in the absurdity or put a wall up early and suffer through the ensuing 87 minutes. But the members of The Lonely Island – Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer – know they aren’t casting a wide net. This is a film aiming for the sweet spot for die-hard fans, with the knowledge that the masses will slowly trickle into the fray later on.
Samberg stars as Conner4Real, a witlessly self-possessed pop star who is obviously an outsized farcical caricature, but whose financial excess, chronic self-absorption, and complete cultural tone-deafness bears remarkable resemblance to any of today’s tabloid-meets-social-media celebrity ciphers. Think Justin Bieber crossed with a Kardashian…or Kanye West crossed with a Kardashian, which is an actual thing, so this movie might as well be a verite portrait. Conner shot to fame in boy band Style Boyz with friends Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer) but emerged as the solo artist of choice, rocketing to superstardom and leaving his buddies in lingering in the shadows. A bevy of industry giants show up in talking head cameos to pile superlatives on this incomprehensible icon.
The “documentary” chronicles the release of Conner’s second album, for which the reception is catastrophic (the only positive review comes from The Onion). The album’s promotional concert tour becomes an increasingly desperate plea for Conner to regain fame and legitimacy, consisting of a parade of increasingly outrageous stunts and set pieces peppered with additional celebrity cameos and a handful of new musical performances that essentially replicate the formula perfected in The Lonely Island’s glory days of SNL Digital Shorts – every bit as bizarrely random but five times as dirty. Popstar is proof that such a formula works better in short form, where a singular mini-concept can be played out to its hilt without having to sustain itself in the context of a broader narrative. Long form also allows Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer (all three collaborated on the screenplay; the latter two share directing credit) enough space to be less discriminatory with their ideas, which results in a hit-or-miss pattern with some of the jokes. And yet the short bursts that work are hilarious, and we’re reminded of the inspired lunacy of this trio’s best work.
Conner4Real is a conduit for the latest catalog of Lonely Island tunes, but in film’s context we see what happens when the artist, and the audience, aren’t in on the joke. Lonely Island songs are intentionally preposterous; Conner4Real songs are just preposterous. The shift in perspective is sneakily reflective of the forthcoming filmgoer divide on this movie, for which it will either be a gut-busting screw-loose inside comedy or an unfathomable timesuck (the guy sitting behind me audibly questioned why many of us were laughing; trust me when I say the movie is funnier than that guy thinks he is). But such is the consequence of a film like Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. It plays by its own rules – which is to say, there are none. Any character and scenario is fair game, and the satiric aim ranges from razor sharp to wildly broad, sometimes even within the same joke. If it doesn’t work for you, I can’t necessarily blame you. But give it some time – the rest of us will welcome you into the cult in a few years.