I’m not exactly sure why I chose to see Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Andy Samberg can be funny when he has the right supporting cast backing him up (see Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where he shines mostly because of playful banter with his all-star co-conspirators). I may not always like his brand of humor, which tends to bounce between offensively funny to annoyingly sick, but he knows who he is as a comic, and I admire and respect his ability to push the limits just past the boundaries of acceptance, and then continue to do so when the backlash is small or non-existent.
Going into Popstar, I wasn’t sure which side I was going to get. Was it going to be closer to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where he relies heavily on his diverse cast to bounce a much more subtle performance off of, or was it going to be more frantic and in your face, where no one else around him seems to matter and where he puts too much stock into sophomoric bathroom humor and dick jokes that have already gotten old and stale? My prognosis: it’s a little bit of both, and because of that, doesn’t seem to find the right voice to carry the entire movie to the finish line.
Samberg plays Conner, a dumb kid who found lady luck throwing him and his two best friends, Owen and Lawrence (fellow Long Island Boys Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, respectively, who also pull triple duty as writers and directors), into the limelight before ever developing any sort of sustainable talent. The trio, known as The Style Boyz, rise quickly to super stardom, but because of his exuberant charisma and personality, Conner becomes the main focus of the media. This upsets Lawrence in more ways than one and breaks the band apart, leading Conner to go solo and continue to rise with his first solo album. But this is the world of rap music, and as a lot of singers know, the music industry can be a fickle bitch, a lesson Conner learns when the sophomore slump rears its ugly head. His second solo album tanks and his reputation becomes smeared in controversy. But until he returns to his roots and understands the reason for his fall from grace, the deeper and deeper he’ll fall, no matter how much he tries to pull himself out.
All of this “drama” plays against the backdrop of a mockumentary, wherein Conner’s life is being filmed for the whole world to see at the same time they make fun of the music industry as a whole. There’s a terrific moment at an awards show when Conner runs into his old opening act (Chris Redd), who also has a documentary film crew following him, all of whom happen upon a documentary crew following Snoop Dogg. They all get entangled upon one another, making light of (or fun of) the absurdity of all of these reality shows and how it seems wherever you turn, there’s another one waiting for their time in the limelight. It’s in moments like these where the film shines brightest. Where it falters is in banking all of its success on Samberg by giving the supporting cast hardly anything to do but fawn over Conner.
And though this conceit is basically the point — and in a way works for what it is — when you have the likes of Joan Cusack in your film (as Conner’s mother, no less), you don’t waste her extraordinary talents with hardly two minutes of screen time. That’s as bad as putting baby in a corner; you just don’t do it. The same thing happens with some of Samberg’s other big name pals. Tim Meadows gets the most opportunity to shine and for the most part, he doesn’t waste what he’s given, but Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Chelsea Peretti and Will Arnett are ushered in with very little meat and are told to make me laugh. THe most egregious example are Peretti and Arnett, who are stuck as part of a riff on TMZ, an idea that at first is a very funny parody of the tabloid television show, but quickly loses its muster the more they go back to it, eventually becoming just a sad display of not really knowing what to do or where to go with the jokes.
But therein lies the problem with the majority of the film — Taccone and Schaffer (along with writing partner Samberg) don’t seem to understand what the movie is truly trying to be. At times a super silly cartoon, at others soberly comedic, the tone never sings on key. This is partially due to the sporadic editing, which feels highly disjointed, especially in the first half of the film, where they continually go back and forth between Conner’s rise to success and his fall from grace. Had they handled these transitions (as well as the continuous cutaways to some major superstar cameos by the likes of Usher, Carrie Underwood, Mariah Carey, Pharrell Williams and Simon Cowell, to name oh but a few), the film may have found a much better footing and had been able to drive the narrative a little cleaner.
Then of course there’s the music, which also waffles unevenly between creatively brilliant and crazily weird. But I liked it for that very reason, because that’s exactly how it’s meant to be. To help promote the movie, Samberg debuted one song on the season finale of Saturday Night Live, and another teaming with Adam Levine on The Voice. Both songs pushed the boundaries of what’s acceptable without much caring about their (possible) offensive nature. A couple of the songs don’t land the way Taccone and Schaffer were probably expecting, but that’s to be expected. Nothing is ever perfect, and though I never quite laughed out load at any aspect of the film, there was plenty of delighted amusement covering the sentimental aspects of what is essentially a fun, if not misguided parody of the music industry and how true friendships are hard to find when you’re a major superstar.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Warcraft, The Conjuring 2 and Now You See Me 2. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.