Sunday, June 5, 2016

Review: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

Rated R for some graphic nudity, language throughout, sexual content and drug use

Score: 4 out of 5

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping may not be the most insightful send-up of modern-day pop stardom, but it is a damn hilarious one. It's lewd, it's crude, and it's so of-the-moment in its targets that, ten years from now, it's likely to be seen as a relic of the 2010s, but it's here to make us laugh now, and it does that. Oh, does it do that. This pop music mockumentary is basically ninety minutes of Lonely Island sketches and music videos strung together with a thin semblance of a plot (enough to give a modicum of weight to the film, but never enough to intrude), and it busted my gut with laughter as it continuously pushed the line of good taste. It's a film of moments rather than a genuinely cohesive whole, but those moments are so damn funny that it works anyway.

The subject of the film is Conner (Andy Samberg), aka Conner4Real. He started out as a member of a hip-hop boy band called the Style Boyz with his friends Owen and Lawrence (fellow Lonely Island members Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer) before breaking out as a solo superstar, with Owen as his DJ and a bitter Lawrence leaving music to become a farmer in Colorado. Critics hate his music, but he doesn't give a damn, and he's prepping the release of his second solo album, CONNquest, with a massive world tour. However, when scandals destroy his public image and threaten the album, the tour, his friendship with Owen, and his career, Conner must reckon with his douchebag behavior and his sudden fall from grace, as well as restore his friendship with his estranged fellow ex-Style Boyz.

It's obvious going in who this film is mainly targeting with its barbs. Justin Bieber hasn't exactly spent the last few years making himself likable, and while he's managed a wildly successful comeback, he's done so by pretty much embracing the fact that everybody thinks he's an asshole, not by trying to reclaim the squeaky-clean, harmless image of his teenage years. Many of Conner's scandals specifically reference some of Bieber's tribulations, such as a faux-pas involving the Anne Frank house, a wrecked sports car, public nudity, and his tempestuous relationship with Ashley Wednesday (Imogen Poots), the star of a series of YA dystopian movies who may as well have been named "British Selena Gomez". It's the parody of Biebermania that we needed, and anybody who's ever thought "God, that kid turned out to be a piece of work, didn't he?" is going to laugh watching this. The boys in the Lonely Island aren't merely content to go for the obvious Bieber jokes, though. Other facets and moments of modern pop stardom are also spoofed. Apple's release of a new U2 album by uploading it for free on everyone's iTunes account (not a lot of people were pleased with that intrusion of privacy) gets combined with modern smart devices and the "internet of things" to hilarious effect. Conner's LGBT rights anthem "Equal Rights" is a song that's mainly about proving that, while he totally supports the gays, he himself is absolutely not gay, a stinging parody of a similar line of criticism that's been leveled at Macklemore's "Same Love". Scores of real-life musicians and other celebrities make cameo appearances, often to hilarious effect, such as when Mariah Carey says that Conner's two-and-a-half-minute humblebrag "I'm So Humble" spoke to her on a personal level. Of course, it's all turned up to eleven (a fitting analogy for a pop music mockumentary) and frequently veers off into the absolutely ridiculous, freely throwing in sex jokes, dick jokes, and other assorted lowbrow humor that it manages to make work just as well, as you'd expect from the guys who made "Dick in a Box" and "Jizz in My Pants". In the interest of not ruining the jokes, I'll end this part of my review and start discussing the story and characters.

...wait, there's a story to this? Oh yeah. There's an actual arc here beyond just the jokes. Sure, it's a thin "getting the band back together" story that mainly serves to get from one joke to the next, but it works in how straightforward it is. Tim Meadows is great as the sleazy manager Harry, who takes on rising rapper (and Conner's opening act) Hunter the Hungry as his new protege once it becomes clear that Hunter is the real reason why people are still coming to Conner's concerts after his public image has taken such a beating. Ditto for Sarah Silverman as Conner's overworked publicist Paula, the woman with the unenviable task of having to get him out of hot water every time he says or does something stupid. The main stars of the show, of course, are the Lonely Island trio of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, who also wrote and directed this film. If you've ever seen any of their music videos or digital shorts on Saturday Night Live, you know exactly what to expect from them, but the surprise is that they manage to make genuinely heartfelt (in this film's own hilarious way) moments work just as well, most notably a scene where Conner is trying, and failing, to defend himself to his friends for all the stupid things he's done and said to them. It helps the film work as more than just a series of comedy sketches, providing actual stakes (however minor) that help to elevate the humor by having it happen to people we care about.

The Bottom Line:

It may not be This Is Spinal Tap, but it's still destined to become a cult classic down the road, a laugh-out-loud riotous spoof of a particular moment of pop culture and music history. If you're a fan of the Lonely Island, you've probably already seen this, but even if you're not a fan, it may just win you over, provided you like your humor raunchy and sick.

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