Fire Up Your Flamethrower, Because POPSTAR’s Got a Steelbook

What the Lonely Island (the comedy collective formed by Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer) has always done well, going back to their earliest days with self-produced comedy videos, through to their era-defining work on Saturday Night Live with the various Digital Shorts, and into their feature film work (which includes, either as a team or as individuals, Hot Rod, MacGruber, and, uh, The Watch) is establish comic universes that are consistent in their inconsistency. Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer construct comedic worlds that are fun-house mirror inversions of the real world in vehicles that are simultaneously scattershot yet hyper-specific in how they build off a familiar trope or style and then progress into first wacky goofiness and then further into utterly deranged, borderline surreal madness.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is maybe their crowning achievement. Starring and co-written by all three, and directed by Taccone and Schaffer, Popstar’s lunatic version of reality is as much a marvel of comedic world-building as something like Airplane! or the other ZAZ classics, movies in which the gags are built into the very fiber and texture of the film. There are jokes within jokes with jokes, with many of the most seemingly random tangents actually being carefully-placed set-up for further jokes that will go off for an extraordinary payoff.

Except for those tangents that are just, you know, tangents. But even that is part of the fun, as you truly don’t know which of the 5,000 things they throw at the screen have been carefully crafted as part of a masterful whole, and which are just there because, I don’t know, Bill Hader was free for a day and you’re not going to not call Bill Hader and have him be in your movie, what are you, stupid?

While the Lonely Island remains vital and popular online, where their music videos can be rewatched over and over again in bite-sized chunks for free, they’ve never had much luck at the box office. Hot Rod, MacGruber, and Popstar all failed out of the gate, with Popstar’s unfortunate performance stinging the most. But now there’s a new, limited edition steelbook available from Shout! Factory, so you have a chance to right your terrible wrong (I’m just assuming you didn’t see this in theaters) and finally find out why Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is one of the best American comedies in years.

Popstar is a mockumentary formed around the doomed second album of pop music sensation ‘Conner4Real’ (Samberg) and the ensuing disastrous tour. Conner got his start as a teen idol in a band with his friends Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer) but their bond fell apart as Conner’s popularity surged and he decided to strike out on his own. Owen stuck around in the vain hope of salvaging the trio, while Lawrence disappeared into the Midwest to become a farmer. Conner’s career hits the skids when his second album drops (sample songs include: “Finest Girl” in which he described an amorous encounter with a young lady who wishes for him to “Fuck me like we fucked Bin Laden”, and “Mona Lisa” in which he describes said portrait as being “the original basic bitch”).

The album and tour’s failure throws Conner’s entire network of sycophants and supporters into disarray, chiefly his longtime manager, Harry (Tim Meadows) and cheerfully soulless publicist Paula (Sarah Silverman), both of who find themselves up against trying to keep Conner’s career from imploding any more than it already has.

But part of what’s great about Popstar is that for a lean, sub-90 minute movie (the Lonely Island never being one to let a joke rest for very long before pile-driving into the next one) it never runs out of new faces to bring in. There’s the aforementioned Hader, and Will Forte shows up for all of a single shot. Maya Rudolph and Joan Cusack drop in, as does Imogen Poots as Conner’s girlfriend. Will Arnett and a supporting crew including Eric Andre, Chelsea Peretti, and Mike Birbiglia nearly walk off with the entire movie as a truly deranged parody of TMZ, Chris Redd makes a big impression as an unhinged up-and-comer wreaking havoc on Conner’s life and career, and all of this is without talking about the insane revolving door of celebrity cameos who pop up both within the film and as commentators on the ‘documentary’.

Talking about Popstar could very easily devolve into just listing off all the best bits, from the blackout bee attack, to the songs, to the wolf attack, to the songs, to all the business with Conner’s intense relationship with his turtle, we can’t not mention all the songs, to Taccone being forced to wear a helmet that makes him resemble Optimus Prime’s dick, and then of course there’s all the songs, it’s just an embarrassment of riches from the opening minutes to the closing credits, which keep flinging more and more jokes at you even as the minutes wind down.

Anchoring all this business is Samberg, who has grown into a strong leading man over the years. Brooklyn 9–9 probably can’t be completely credited with his growth, but having to spend all day with Andre Braugher sure as shit hasn’t hurt. In Hot Rod and the Digital Shorts, Samberg was ‘playing’ a bad actor giving a bad performance, pointedly arch and false at every turn. With Popstar, he is as sharp a perfomer as he’s ever been, but for once the moments where something like sincerity creeps into his performance don’t feel like a meta-textual put-on. Conner’s a ludicrous dumbass, and he deserves the humbling he receives over the course of the film, but Samberg somehow threads this needle of embracing all the Bieber-esque awfulness while keeping you squarely in Conner’s corner so his third act redemption feels earned.

It helps that, for the first time, it feels like the Lonely Island is letting something like actual vulnerability into their wackiness. Maybe that’s the Judd Apatow touch (he helped produce this one). For as much as Popstar is a ridiculous cartoon, for as much delight as everyone clearly took in aiming a shotgun directly into the barrel of fish that is the music industry and firing over and over again, there is something in how Popstar illustrates the way that success can fracture friendships and alter relationships that feels keenly observed and honestly portrayed. The movie’s having too much fun to dwell on this material in an overt fashion, but that thread is there throughout the film, and Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer all do the best work of their careers somehow earning real emotional beats in a film that, again, has Seal battle a wolf to the death.

Special mention must also be made of Tim Meadows, who turns even the simplest of punchlines into a grand-slam. Meadows seems doomed to only get great showcases in movies that no one goes to see (including the other Apatow-produced, music-centered parody, box office disaster, comedic masterpiece, Walk Hard) but he makes his every scene count.

Sarah Silverman is also a hoot with her Jaws-ian smile and utter lack of apology for her character’s single-minded greed. It’s a shame that Popstar’s pre-ordained arc towards Conner’s redemption slots her into the role of redemptive mother figure, but for a while at least the film gets great use out of Silverman’s ability to say the worst things with a smile and somehow make it palatable.

In general, I wish Popstar gave its female characters more to play with, as the film’s balance does feel tilted too much towards silly boys being silly. Most of Cusack’s role seems to have hit the cutting room floor, while Maya Rudolph hopefully gave her agent a nice bonus for securing her super-high billing despite having less than a minute of screen time and maybe four lines, total. Hey, good for her. Imogen Poots is very funny in her quick turn, but the movie can only sort of suggest the dimensions of what she’s playing, and then it’s on to the next thing.

The Steelbook comes with extra features that highlight just how much work goes into making something that seems so light and silly. There’s a very fun commentary from the Lonely Island guys, along with deleted scenes, outtakes, music videos, additional footage and interviews, the whole works.

I think at this point, we need to conclude that for probably any number of reasons, the Lonely Island’s success with their music and viral videos isn’t likely to make the jump to feature film success. That’s really too bad, but we can at least rest assured that for a generation of comedy fans, Popstar, like Hot Rod and MacGruber and their other work, exist as a language, a short-hand, that people can share and celebrate together.

If you giggle when you think of the band Tony! Toni! Toné!, if you know who it is that is the fish, and if you are privy to how best to turn Andy Samberg into Jason Segel, then you belong to a pretty exclusive club, and we’re all very happy to have you. If you speak fluent Popstar, then you’re going to want to grab this new Steelbook edition.

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