Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a movie about a trio of childhood friends who continue to make music together despite one member’s breakout success, made by a trio of childhood friends who continue to make music together despite one member’s breakout success. Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone’s latest venture is more than one teen idol’s attempt to recover from a poop-emoji-star review in Rolling Stone. (This is a real plot point in Popstar.) It’s a sincere (auto)biopic hidden inside a parody biopic, right down to the distinctly Lonely Island touch of being just joyful, and self-aware, enough to avoid being as insufferable as that sounds. It is a group of friends’ unmistakable ode to their friendship.
Technically, Popstar is the second feature from the benevolent bros who inadvertently brought SNL into the 21st century with their stand-alone shorts. Still, it’s the first that’s truly theirs. Hot Rod may have long passed the threshold of post-2 a.m. dorm screenings to qualify as a cult hit, but as a reworking of an original script by Lady Dynamite’s Pam Brady, it’s missing much of what defines the Lonely Island’s comedy. (Music, for one.)
Cowritten by all three members, codirected by Schaffer and Taccone, and accompanied by an album’s worth of new music, there’s no mistaking the comedic minds behind Popstar. Collectively, real-life group the Lonely Island plays fictional group The Style Boyz; individually, Samberg plays Conner4Real, a hybrid of Justins Bieber (tattoos, ill-advised exotic pet) and Timberlake (winner of Who Gets to Have a Career After This Boy Band Thing Goes South?). Completing the cycle, the real Justin Timberlake plays Conner’s personal chef, thereby cementing his status as the Island’s fifth Beatle. Taccone and Schaffer round out the ensemble as Conner’s DJ/iPod technician and estranged former lyricist, relegated to the Wikipedia footnotes of Conner’s megastardom.
Popstar could have easily functioned as a delivery system for the blowhard party anthems and faux-smooth sex jams that made the group a pre-viral viral sensation. But surprisingly, and maybe even disappointingly, Popstar prizes the connective tissue over the main attraction. Clocking in at a lean 86 minutes — a runtime made all the more shocking by the involvement of Judd “50-Minute Comedy Pilot” Apatow — the final cut barely makes room for two full songs, and includes just one music video. (The clip for “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” got punted to an inevitable SNL promotional spot.)
Instead, the Island tell the story of the person who’d sing the lyric “Terrorize that pussy!” without a shred of irony. As it turns out, it’s not so different from the story of the people who’d write the lyric “Terrorize that pussy!” fully in on the (crude, wonderful) joke. It’s a thank-you card to the universe from the Lonely Island, three California kids who made it to the big time without the ugly breakup.
Most of Popstar plays out like the real-Bieber-documentary spoof we knew it would be. Musicians ranging from A$AP Rocky to Mariah Carey join the loving pile-on of their industry: Conner launches his album with help from an appliance company that sounds suspiciously like Samsung, and Rocky claims he doesn’t begrudge Conner his sponsorship — after all, he has his own line of A$AP-branded Lunchables. Conner’s touring act includes both a blatantly phallic DJ helmet and a ridiculously elaborate costume changes, complete with the world’s first recorded instance of a Chekhov’s Wardrobe Malfunction.
This being a studio comedy, however, Conner has to learn a lesson. Here, it’s the Power of Friendship: Conner decides to embrace his former bandmates rather than try to outgrow them. By the end of the movie, they’ve rediscovered the joys of making music together, albeit on a giant weed farm instead of in the California suburbs where they grew up. Conner’s happy for his friends. His friends are happy for him. A rising tide of bong water and homosocial bonding lifts all boats. After all, being able to sing about making tender love to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on national television with your BFFs is a gift. Why would anyone, even a fictional character, turn it down?
And so, accurate as some of its potshots — at the pop promotion machine, at fame’s insularity — may be, Popstar is ultimately less interesting as satire than as a check-in with the heir apparent to the man-boy-comedian throne Adam Sandler has long since vacated. For starters, Andy Samberg’s goofy, innocuous brand of juvenility feels far better suited to 2016. Samberg doesn’t think naming a Native American character “Beaver Breath” is a divinely inspired act of transgression. He has a verse on a song from a movie about Legos. He lives in a batshit crazy house from the fever dream of an unusually artsy 6-year-old. He knows how to use the phrase “woke bae” ironically. He’s doing something fun, silly, and enormously likable. He’s fully in the post–Style Boyz portion of his career.
Let’s be clear: Andy Samberg is not an egomaniacal teen idol with an on-staff eyebrow groomer, and a thoroughly enjoyable Fox sitcom is not an arena-level pop franchise. But Popstar implicitly answers the question of why, exactly, he’s making this rather than the Samberg version of Anchorman or Happy Gilmore: He wants to hang out with his friends!
This wouldn’t be all that notable, except that it’s almost riskier than Samberg striking out on his own; 10 years post-“Lazy Sunday,” the Lonely Island’s schtick could outstay its welcome. (For some, it long since has.) And it would, if Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone didn’t take such palpable joy in working together. Popstar rejects the binary between sticking together and going solo. So does its movie star.