Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is one of those films where you can hear the pitch while you’re watching the movie. “It’ll be This is Spinal Tap for the millennials, for the Beliebers,” is probably how it went. And the prospects were good. It’s a comedy from the team who brought you the sporadically hilarious The Lonely Island – Adam Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone – the guys whose digital shorts livened up many an episode of Saturday Night Live and at least one afternoon trawling YouTube instead of working. The big question would have been can the bite-sized joke been spun out into the heftier meal of a feature? And the answer is no, not really. Actually, not at all.
Samberg plays titular popstar Conner4Real, a vapid doofus who rose to fame with the trio The Style Boyz, somewhere between New Kids on the Block and the Beastie Boys. When the band breaks up, Connor embarks on a solo career employing one of his former bandmates Owen (Schaffer) as his DJ – he has the whole show keyed up on his iPod – and Lawrence (Taccone) retreats to hipster exile farming and sculpting wood in a fake beard. So far, so Tap, but with the band already broken up in the prologue, there’s no emotional pull to the idea of them all getting back together, which is ultimately what we’re supposed to be rooting for as Conner’s career goes from the heights of his album (Thriller, Also) to the gaffes and disappointment of his latest work.
Even at ninety minutes Popstar feels too long. The funniest moments are the songs such as a plea for marriage equality which spends most of its time vaunting his unimpeachable heterosexuality, or the promise to “do you like Bin Laden”. But the material that strings the story together between the songs is much weaker and the celebrity cameos – following the mattress fire that was Zoolander 2 – are rapidly becoming the hallmark of piddle-poor comedy. Simon Callow, Nas, Questlove and Ringo Starr all attest to Conner’s talent and impact, but, playing themselves, they resemble nothing more than humourless celebrities trying to attach themselves to something their agents tell them is “funny” and “in”. Seasoned comic actors such as Sarah Silverman look bored as they try to inject some satire into the fauxtire premise, but often with underwritten material.
Samberg himself is tediously one-sided, admittedly playing someone who is tediously one-sided, but he’s no David St. Hubbins. When Michael Bolton turns up to reprise what was a cameo from a classic Lonely Island appearance, it only serves to remind us of why we were expecting this to be funnier. Perhaps one of the problems is that postmodern pop culture is resistant to satire. Fully aware and shameless in its own ridiculousness (cf. Miley Cyrus), it is impervious to irony in the way that the pomposity of Heavy Metal was not. Yet the presence of honorary Lonely Islander Justin Timberlake in a pointless and painfully unfunny cameo also hints that Samberg and co are too close to the culture they ought to be gleefully ripping to shreds.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty