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Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
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by Peter Sobczynski

"This Is Not Even Close To Being Spinal Tap"
2 stars

Although “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is not technically an official “Saturday Night Live” spinoff movie, it is, for all intents and purposes, a feature-length version of one of the pop culture-savvy and musically inclined Digital Shorts that Andy Samberg used to make with friends Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer under the Lonely Island banner—“Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box” being the most famous of the bunch. However, the film nevertheless falls into the same trap as such not-quite-classics as “A Night at the Roxbury” and “Superstar” by failing to recognize that what might be concise and funny at five minutes tends to become formless, repetitive and exponentially less amusing when stretched out to ninety. It wants to come across as a spoof of ego and cultural self-aggrandizement rung among in our increasingly media-saturated age but at a certain point—and a pretty early one to boot—it essentially winds up succumbing to the very conditions that it is trying to mock.

Ostensibly a spoof of the rash of “documentaries” that pop stars like Beyonce, Katy Perry and Justin Beiber have been issuing about themselves in recent years that promise a look at the behind-the-scenes lives of the stars that end up being as sanitized as any magazine puff piece, the film stars Samberg as Connor 4 Real, a ridiculously doofy guy who, along with childhood buddies Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer), hit it big as part of the pop-rap trio Style Boyz (imagine a grim cross between early Beastie Boys and one of those groups that tried to be the next N’Sync) only to eventually split them up to record a hugely popular solo album—the loyal Owen sticking with Conner as his deejay while Lawrence retires to a farm while grumbling about Conner stealing credit for composing their songs. Unfortunately, Conner’s follow-up album is an instant flop and while the addition of a controversial rapper (Chris Redd) as the opening act ensures that the subsequent tour will still go on, he is nevertheless driven to increasingly desperate measures to keep himself in the spotlight, ranging from a disastrous promotional deal with an appliance company to a public proposal to his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) that involves a full press contingent, a serenade by Seal and some very agitated wolves and all covered by a ravenous media eager to capture yet another fall from the limelight.

Of course, it is impossible to watch “Popstar” without thinking of “This is Spinal Tap,” the 1984 comedy classic following a mediocre British heavy metal band past its shelf date on a disastrous American concert tour. And yet, while it is obvious that Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer—the three wrote the screenplay with the latter two co-directing—have seen “Spinal Tap” many times over the years, they curiously seem to have ignored some of the key reasons for what made the film so special and funny, even if you had no real working knowledge of the world of heavy metal music. For example, although “Spinal Tap” contained any number of broadly hilarious moments, a lot of the jokes were of a surprisingly subtle manner that were all the funnier because they didn’t call attention to themselves the first time around—as a result, it was one of the rare comedies that actually became funnier the more times you saw it as more of the quieter gags finally clicked into place. “Popstar,” on the other hand, relies on the same basic formula of the old digital shorts by offering broad jokes that have been embellished by surreal touches and largely self-spoofing celebrity cameos. The problem here is that, in much the way that a 90-minute compilation of Lonely Island videos might get tiresome after a while, “Popstar” quickly runs out of inspiration and between the clunking gags and the cameo appearances by stars who, for the most part, are left standing around like good sports waiting in vain for something funny to do, I almost found myself wishing for the cooperative subtlety and clever wit of “Zoolander 2.”

The other key difference is that in “This is Spinal Tap,” the main characters were clueless, thick-headed egomaniacs who could barely function as human beings, let alone as members of a band, but despite all that, one still felt a lot of love and affection for them despite their innate silliness—even though we had been laughing at them throughout, it was still nearly impossible not to feel something uplifting at the end when they came back together because of their shared love for each other and for rock and roll. By comparison, Samberg plays Conner as the dimmest bulb imaginable but then fails to give us a single reason to care about him or his efforts to save his dreams/delusions of musical greatness. Again, as a character who only needs to exist for about five minutes or so, that is perfectly acceptable but to attempt to hang an entire film around such a character is borderline perverse. Actually, if it had stuck to its guns and treated Conner with the kind of contempt that he clearly deserves, it might have worked but not only does the film fail to do that, it actually wants us to feel sincerely warm and fuzzy over the possibility of the estranged Style Boyz putting their differences aside to reunite—that may actually be the funniest joke on display, albeit one of the inadvertent variety.

To be fair, “Popstar” is not quite as desultory of a moviegoing experience as, say, “Neighbors 2”—there are a few funny moments here and there (I especially like the Mariah Carey cameo and the various responses to the decidedly ineffectual disguise that Conner employs to go out in public at one point) and the Lonely Island songs continue to manage the not inconsiderable trick of being funny and fairly catchy at the same time (although once again deploying the dulcet tones of Michael Bolton has a wiff of desperation to it. And yet, the funny moments never really pull together into a consistent whole and there are long stretches where the whole thing becomes more tedious than amusing. With a lot of misfired movies, there is the tendency to suggest that one simply wait to see them on cable instead of wasting money to see them in a theatre. Here, I think you can safely forgo even that and just wait for the highlights to hit YouTube, a location where they will no doubt feel right at home.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29303&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/03/16 11:59:50
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USA
  03-Jun-2016 (R)
  DVD: 13-Sep-2016

UK
  26-Aug-2016

Australia
  03-Jun-2016
  DVD: 13-Sep-2016




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