Film

At Its Best, Lonely Island’s ‘Popstar’ Blows Up Our Pop Moment

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It’s a feat to out-idiot TMZ culture. In achieving that, the fake-doc white-rapper satire Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a breakthrough for studio comedies, which here at last catch up to the metabolism and meaninglessness of the internet age. In its generous, frenetic first hour, Popstar‘s jokes and parodies blast at you with the relentlessness of the dumbest, buzziest, most GIF-happy Reddit threads. More than half the film skips past in montage: news clips, hashtags, concert footage, interview segments (Questlove, A$AP Rocky, Ringo Starr), music videos (“Karate Guy” goes, “I like to kick it/I’m a karate guy”), all so over the top that the movie can see your house from up there. “I’m so humble,” sings Andy Samberg’s Conner4Real, the prick of a hero, a monster Frankensteined together from Justin Bieber, Macklemore, the early Beastie Boys, and Robin Thicke. He’s dancing in front of lit-up letters spelling it out: HUMBLE. He adds, as a throng of thousands sings it with him, “I say that with no ego!”

The stupidly funny builds upon the groaningly funny only to be trumped/remixed/meme-ified until it’s sublimely funny. The gags come too fast to track, especially in the white-bro hip-hop song pastiches. If you miss a dozen, don’t worry. Directors and writers Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone — partners with co-writer Samberg in the Lonely Island comedy trio — have rigged up a self-feeding perpetual-motion absurdity machine: The movie recycles its own jokes back at you, weirder and leveled-up.

At least, it does all this for the first hour, before the rules of studio comedies finally kick in. The price we pay at the movies for watching a comedian trash everything our society holds dear is, as always, a third act in which that comedian’s character learns to become society’s idea of a better person, the kind we probably wouldn’t want to see a comedy about. The viral vids and Adult Swim dada that Popstar competes with have been liberated from received forms and running times; as a commercial feature, Popstar‘s obliged to get close to the ninety-minute mark — and, to fill that out, Lonely Island relies on the usual redemption plot, a standby of producer Judd Apatow. As in last summer’s Trainwreck, though, the lead’s growth comes across as something like a housebreaking, and the laughs come slower as the scenes grow longer.

When it slows down, when it gives you time to think, Popstar reveals its weaknesses. It bites a lot of parodic targets, but gently and weakly, only breaking the skin in a series of sketches targeting the TMZ TV show. The story has Conner facing the spectacular failure of his second solo album, but the new material — which we’re told received a Pitchfork rating of negative 4.0 — is no more howlingly awful than “Humble.” And none of his public humiliations are more offensive than the best of his old hits, the one that builds to the chorus “She demanded that I fuck her like we fucked bin Laden.” That song’s a scream, so funny and sharply written that it doesn’t track that the character we’re watching could have written it.

Conner gets some great lines: “There’s no such thing as selling out anymore,” he says. “If you don’t sell out, people will think no one asked you to.” But he turns out to be a vague and uninteresting presence, driven by no desire for or belief in anything other than his own stardom. That view of pop is indistinguishable from, say, George Will’s, and it’s at odds with the prankish energy behind the bin Laden song: If Conner wrote that, he’s much more interesting than the selfish naïf that Samberg plays. The script contrives to have Conner rejoin his old rap group, the Style Boyz, whose singles included “I’m a Nerd for Ass.” His ex-partners are played by Schaffer and Taccone, which might account for why the filmmakers seem to believe we’ll feel something for this protracted reunion — the Lonely Island guys are real friends, a real group, going back to junior high, and when drawing upon that history they go soft.

The good news is that even when it slows down and teaches rote lessons, Popstar still has surprises. Sarah Silverman and Tim Meadows, as Conner’s press rep and manager, get laughs just by looking annoyed, and a late rap number, inspired by the transcendently ridiculous Nineties hit “Things That Make You Go Hmmmm,” peaks with this boast: “I fucked your first cousin with a didgeridoo/And when she came it sounded like” — well, no set of keystrokes can capture the throaty moaning that follows.

Popstar‘s final breakthrough concerns studio comedies’ one-upmanship of each other’s onscreen peen. Like Call of Duty sequels, we get more every year, usually with negligible new features. As always, the R rating prohibits the filmmakers from showing what the organ comics can’t stop talking about actually does, or exhibiting it in any but its sleepiest state. But here it’s in action, jiggling in terror as a car window rolls up between the sack and shaft. Oddly, the dick joke has one of the movie’s few extended, traditional setups, a rule-of-threes beauty that wrings art from two requisite flashes of groupie t&a. Here’s to you, Comedy Stunt Penis!

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Directed by Akiva Schaffer

and Jorma Taccone

Universal Pictures

Opens June 3

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