One of the best things to come from Saturday Night Live has to be its Digital Shorts segment. With titles like “Laser Cats!,” “Please Don’t Cut My Testicles,” “Jizz in My Pants,” and of course “Dick in a Box” and its follow up, “Motherlover,” the angle was decidedly crass and juvenile—high school boy stuff loaded with potty, sex, and to a lesser degree drug humor with the occasional reference to geek fodder, usually some work of the science fiction or fantasy genre. Written and produced by The Lonely Island—comedy trio Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, and Andy Samberg—the genius lied in the creators’ astute balance of pop cultural literacy, musical aptitude, and complete absurdism. Generally performed as music videos for rap and pop songs so spot on they sounded real, Digital Shorts attracted the likes of Steve Martin, Natalie Portman, Lady Gaga, Betty White, and of course Justin Timberlake.
In Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Lonely Island expands its formula into a feature length film, playing former members of Style Boyz, a boy band whose biggest hit was “The Donkey Roll” (https://youtu.be/-mRVK8-XfEU). After a rift over credit, the Boyz break up and go their separate ways. Lawrence (Schaffer) and Owen (Taccone) fail to duplicate their success, but narcissistic and dubiously talented frontman Conner Friel (Samberg) has a huge blockbuster with his solo album Thriller, Also. The film, done as a mockumentary very much in the style of This Is Spinal Tap!, picks up just as Conner’s followup, Connquest, is about to “drop” (i.e, be released). A huge media blitz including a tour is in the works. When Connquest fails to live up to its predecessor, all signs point to a Style Boyz reunion—but can that happen?
Popstar makes it abundantly clear why The Lonely Island’s brand of humor works as shorts: it simply can’t sustain a movie. With Popstar, they nail the excess, the ego, and the emptiness of the entertainment biz. Tim Meadows as Conner’s manager and Sarah Silverman as his publicist are awesome, simultaneously informing, persuading, and babysitting Conner while constantly stroking his ego. The songs sound real. Conner’s show, complete with backup dancers and a deejay, looks authentic. Some of the scenes are pretty damned funny, including one where Conner is forced to autograph a fan’s, um, junk (props for getting it through the window of the limo). It’s amusing to see real popstars like Questlove, Usher, 50 Cent, and Ringo Starr (not to mention bitch on wheels Simon Cowell) gush in fake interviews over something so obviously lame as Style Boyz and Conner. It’s fun to see P!nk, Adam Levine, and Michael Bolton perform with Conner—and “Equal Rights” (with P!nk) is a hilarious, cheerful spoof of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love.” Seal and Mariah Carey make gracious cameos that show they can take a joke. This is all good. The problem is, Popstar is essentially a string of dumb gags. Unlike This Is Spinal Tap!, it gets tiresome, fast. I lost interest after a little while; the characters and the jokes are too thin to carry Popstar all the way. Even Timberlake, whose appearances with The Lonely Island have always been funny, is an uncharacteristic yawn as Conner’s chef. Meh.
Curiously, the best song for this film was deleted: https://youtu.be/t3jKtjgRZQY. Seeing it as a short probably is best, anyway.
Also starring Maya Rudolph, Joan Cusack, Imogen Poots, Chris Redd, Edgar Blackmon, James Buckley, Ashley Moore, Bill Hader, Will Forte, Will Arnett, Carrie Underwood, Nas, Akon, Big Boy, D.J. Khaled, Danger Mouse, Pharrell Williams, Jimmy Fallon, Martin Sheen, Snoop Dog, Weird Al Yankovic
Produced by Perfect World Pictures, Apatow Company, and The Lonely Island
Distributed by Universal Pictures
(iTunes rental) D+