It was always probably only a matter of time before the comedy trio The Lonely Island – Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer – made themselves a feature length film. With the success of their SNL digital shorts, it is almost inevitable that they would make the transition and stretch their humor from 3 minutes to 90 minutes. The very existence of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stoppingis pretty self-congratulatory, yet it’s also one of the most fresh and clever comedies to come from a major studio in a while, and is likely the hardest I’ll laugh in the theater this year.
Drawing from all sorts of real life boy band and popstar narratives in pop culture for their parody, Conner (Andy Samberg) is the world’s biggest musician after leaving his boy band Style Boyz and going solo as Conner4Real while keeping Style Boyz member Owen (Jorma Taccone) on as his unnecessary stage DJ. His latest overproduced and overloaded album, Connquest, has tanked both commercially and critically. To rejuvenate his flailing tour, he hires a Tyler, The Creator-esque rapper Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd) to open his show and turns to all sorts of on-stage gimmickry. However, the one thing that may give him redemption is to reunite his old boy band and settle his grudge with 3rd Style Boyz member Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer).
The dynamic between each member of the Style Boyz feels autobiographical. Owen is in charge of creating the addictive beats, Lawrence has the skill with lyricism, and Conner is the star, the frontman, the Timberlake of their N-Sync. Taccome and Schaffer have opted to stick behind the camera for much of their work and focus on construction and technique. Samberg has always been the star and the most recognizable name of their trio. They all seem to understand this symbiosis and be happy for each other’s separate efforts and successes, and it shows in how much this film works on the strength of their interplay with them understanding their separate roles in the filmmaking process.
The film does give the feeling of getting put on narrative pause in the 3rd act in order to have Conner experience self-enlightenment and give him a wholesome arc. With that said, that doesn’t mean it ever stops being funny through its final scenes. This is a joke-a-minute film that doesn’t get weighed down in its constant thrust of comedic efficiency. Dozens upon dozens of cameos don’t get dragged down in their inherent “look at me” gimmickry, I could watch the star-studded TMZ gags for another hour if given the opportunity. Famous people playing themselves in on-camera interview segments add to the heightened reality without being too distracting in their very presence. Much of the humor comes from the very fact that these guys got some very famous and respected names to make fun of themselves here. For what it’s worth, Popstar also features one of the most gut-busting and clever instances of graphic on-screen genitalia in some time. A line involving cinematographer/director Jan de Bont seems to be put there specifically for me, I was near tears in how hard I was laughing. You can also tell that a lot of footage seems to be cut out. That’s fair, I’d rather leave a comedy wanting more than wishing I’d left an hour earlier. But still, the absence of them becomes evident in how little screen time some seemingly integral characters and big names get.
Directors Schaffer and Taccome pull double duty and have an innate sense of scene construction that leads to maximal laugh opportunity. The deadpan and escalation of absolute lunacy that both have done so skillfully in past work flourishes ever further with their combined forces. They also have a consistently fresh finger on the pulse of pop culture, ripping on the likes of U2, Macklemore, Seal, Bieber and unofficial Lonely Island member Justin Timberlake himself (who has a brief and well-used role) that simultaneously make fun of those specific people and personality traits while taking a scathing look at the music industry as a whole. In several scenes, the news on TV in the background display terrifying real world headlines about economic and political collapse, highlighting the however intentional/unintentional disgusting and distracting role that celebrity and pop culture have in overshadowing actual problems in our world. Continually undervalued cinematographer Brandon Trost puts forward more ace work here. Whether it’s viral in-the-moment cellphone footage, the theatrical immediacy of concert footage, music video maximalism or verite camera crew documentary scenes, Trost convincingly and effortlessly creates legitimacy and authenticity in the presentation of these farce instances. Popstar achieves the challenging feat of looking and feeling like the real thing, Trost photographing a heightened reality we can sink into with his subtle yet concrete work.
Samberg continues to excel at playing loud and obliviously ego-centric types of characters while enhancing his leading man capabilities as Conner. Taccone and Schaffer are happy to play secondary roles but get plenty of standout comedic moments to themselves. Chris Redd is delightfully unhinged and unpredictable as Hunter. Imogen Poots gets to stretch her comedic chops as Conner’s goofy and shameless socialite girlfriend Ashley. Maya Rudolph pulls off the funniest-in-its-shock use of the N-word in some time. Tim Meadows and Sarah Silverman are reliable as tertiary presences and grounding forces in Conner’s life. Bill Hader makes the most of a few quick scenes.
Popstar did surprisingly dismal at the box office, only pulling in $5 million domestically, but it’s also fitting given its creators’ history. Schaffer’s hilarious and overlooked Hot Rod and his surprisingly funny The Watch didn’t fare well at the box office either. Taccone’s MacGruber, the hardest I’ve ever laughed in a theater and a film I could watch on repeat for eternity, did even worse than Popstar. It’s only fitting that Popstar, another hilarious and creative output from them, would seem destined for similar underseen cult classic status. It feels almost impossible that box office success will ever find Schaffer and Taccone, but let us hope that these two never stop.