At this point, it’s hard to imagine a subject less deserving of affectionate satire than the egos and excesses of the entertainment industry. It takes a knife as serrated and vulgar as David Cronenberg’s underrated Maps to the Stars to slice through that bubble of absurd privilege. Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s likeable but limp music mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, on the other hand, still has its comedic baby teeth, nibbling on subjects it should be ripping to shreds.
Andy Samberg stars alongside his the Lonely Island comedy teammates Schaffer and Taccone as pampered, dim-witted and narcissistic popstar Conner Friel, re-dubbed Conner4Real for a Timberlake-ian solo ascent, and prepared drop his revoltingly self-aggrandizing sophomore album as the movie opens. Schaffer and Taccone play Conner’s former bandmates in the Style Boyz, a post-Beastie Boys, pre-Backstreet Boys hip-hop boy band institution that Conner razed with the wrecking ball of his ego.
Following the breakup of the Style Boyz, Schaffer’s Lawrence exiles himself to life as a bitter farmer and extremely untalented woodworker, while Taccone’s more devoted Owen gets reduced to an increasingly insulting second-banana role in Conner’s solo career. Conner’s first album was a raging success, but the ill-advised follow-up gets roasted by critics (Pitchfork gives it a negative four out of 10) and rejected by fans, and he faces adversity and scrutiny for the first time in his sheltered life.
As a camera crew documents his every move, Conner engages in James Franco-like social media oversharing, Macklemore-like social issue pandering and Justin Bieber-like disrespect for the Anne Frank House. The targets here are fatter than novelty piñatas—celebrity jerks, social media cannibalism, crass TMZ journalists—and yet Popstar whiffs as often as it connects. Who is supposed to be threatened by any of these naughty-boy high jinks? Bieber, maybe, but that’s some pretty specific low-hanging fruit. Popstar feels less like a successor to This is Spinal Tap and Walk Hard than an unofficial third Zoolander movie.
A brisk but lumpy 87 minutes, Popstar features roughly the same number of gratuitous celebrity walk-on “jokes” as any other Judd Apatow production, but for once this lowest-common-denominator tactic actually fits the material. Even better, everyone seems pretty game, from Mariah Carey to RZA to 50 Cent to Michael Bolton. For a film so heavily dependent on cameos, there is an admirable scarcity of phoned-in performances. And yet the sheer number of superstars willing to wink at their own public images in Popstar only underlines the utter lack of danger in the material.
There are definitely laughs, especially in an excellent opening number where Conner4Real humble-brags about his own humility while Adam Levine holograms freak each other on stage. Unfortunately, the joke wears thin pretty quick, and the final third of the film goes heavy on plot, assuming an emotional connection with the characters that the rest of the film never attempts to create. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping coasts by on potty-mouthed affability alone.