This review contains mild spoilers.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is the sophomore film for comedy trio The Lonely Island. Their first film was the 2007 release, Hot Rod. Popstar is the culmination of the group’s work thus far, bringing to the table their talents in most everything they’ve tried. Beginning in 2005, the group was hired by Saturday Night Live, where their contributions to the show quickly went viral. They created hits such as “Lazy Sunday,” and “Throw it on the Ground,” a song about a man’s frustrations with the world around him leading to him throwing numerous objects on the ground in a hilariously over-dramatic fashion (and in my own personal opinion, one of the greatest skits ever). Their success leads them to be placed as head producers for SNL’s “Digital Shorts” division, where they wrote numerous skits and songs. They released three albums and had numerous hit singles. Even discounting their film Hot Rod, their experience with videography is extensive, producing their own music videos for dozens of their songs and non-Lonely Island-related material.
Popstar is a mockumentary that has its origins based in truth, following the lives of three band-members (Conner, Owen, and Lawrence) as they deal with their fame and success post-breakup. The in-movie band “The Style Boyz,” can’t be seen as anything but the fictional counterpart to the real world’s The Lonely Island. The dynamics between the lead characters seem to mirror that of the group’s real-life dynamics. Conner, the character played by Andy Samberg, is the one who is always front and center, the face of the band, which mirrors his status among the members of The Lonely Island in actuality: He has the most to say in the songs and skits, and has been the lead actor in both of the group’s films. Owen, played by Jorma Taccone, is the second most prominent; in the film, he functions as Conner’s music producer. The least-visible member of the band is Lawrence, played by Akiva Schafer, who in the film was the uncredited writer behind the originality and success of The Style Boyz’s songs, and who in the real world functioned as the film’s co-director along with Jorma Taccone; Akiva had sole directing credit for Hot Rod.
Popstar has received positive reviews from critics. It currently stands at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 6.6/10. I think it deserves more than that, however. Comedy is highly subjective, and it seems that many comedies which end up becoming hits or gaining cult followings after the fact tend to receive low or middling scores from critics. The (sloppily done) logline for this story would be as follows: Riding high off the success of his first solo album, a former band member attempts his rise to the top alone, but soon learns that what helped make him famous in the first place didn’t come from him. While it is packed with jokes, the film still manages to make good on its promise. Our lead character has an arc and changes his worldview in a positive way. While we initially laugh at Conner’s over-the-top antics and satirical representation of a celebrity, the film manages to convince us of the negative aspects of Conner’s behavior without alienating the character from us. We’re invested in him from the beginning, and thus invested in his change. At no point in his arc does Conner ever become unfunny, and the movie lets us laugh at him without ever making him dislikable (Andy Samberg’s portrayal goes a long way towards endearing us to the character).
To see why this kind of development is so important in comedies, watch a movie where the lead character is portrayed as dislikable to the point where our feelings toward the character spill over into a personal dislike outside of the context of the film. Cameron Diaz’s character in Bad Teacher, for example, starts out as a horrible person, gets into antics at the school with characters who are objectively justified in their dislike of her, gets those same people arrested by framing them for her own illegal activities, and then gets away scot free. There was never a point in the film where she gets her comeuppance, never a point in the film where she changes her outlook (negative or positive),* and never a point where I didn’t want to smack the character and the screenwriter right in the face with a copy of David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible.
(*But seriously, though, the movie’s a case study of how not to write a lead character. The only allowances I’ll grant this movie are that I’m writing from memory and might be a little off, but I’ll never forget the horrible metaphorical taste that film left in my mouth.)
To talk a little about the humor of the film, it has a fresh variety of jokes. Part of the jokes come from the character’s personalities (funny quips that double as character-insight), some absurd situations that the characters are forced into, and the rest comes from a combination of the two: how Conner’s situation, for example, is the result of his own extravagant and over-the-top personality, and how such a personality reacts to an absurdist situation.
I laughed, I cried (not really), I had a very good time.
Popstar gets a solid 8.5/10 from me.