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'Popstar' fights the music industry with kid gloves —but is funny

The latest from Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island boys can't touch Bieber for silliness, not that it tried.
PopstarPopstar

‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’
Director:
Akiva Schaffer
Stars: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Can you really savage the music industry when its biggest stars are in your movie? Can you even satirize something that’s already ceaselessly ridiculous? Does it really matter if the results are funny anyway? The answers are: no, no and well, you know, not really. At its best “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is a whirligig fever dream reflection of our current pop culture landscape — not just its epic silliness but its speed and density. Jokes fire at the pace of a Vine video. Watching it is like the most busy and fruitful social media time-kill imaginable, where you hungrily imbibe plenty of shiny distractions, untold gif-level yuks and a think piece-y realization or five. You might even leave thinking you got something deeper than you did.

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Still, funny’s funny, and even “Popstar”’s softest blows still hit. Its semi-hero is Connor Friel, aka Connor4real, a white boy rapper who ditched his beloved boy band, the Style Boyz, to skyrocket as a solo god — while his former partners and lifelong friends (fellow Lonely Islanders Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schafer, also the film’s co-creators) floundered. Bouncing with a stupid grin and oblivious confidence through a bubble swollen by fame and yes men, Connor announces a surprise release a week before it’s dropped. Early on he performs a song about how humble he is in front of the words “HUMBLE” writ large and gaudy.

Ain’t that so Bieber? In fact, isn’t Bieber far, far more absurd? Truth, as the saying goes, is stranger than fiction, but with “Popstar” it’s powerfully true. Little of what it conjures up can touch reality, not when icons like Biebs and Kanye tweet and unleash insanities no writer could dream up, much less when they’re asking all their famous industry friends (Mariah, Usher, Snoop, Ringo) to swing by for a winking cameo. At its worst, “Popstar” is akin to parodies of Trump: funny, yeah, but you can never trump the real deal.

And yet there’s so much stuff crammed into its speedy 86 minutes that you might not notice that theoretically, at least, it shouldn’t work. Most of its running time is a giant, whiplash montage, always quick with a TMZ slam, an absurdist aside or another parody video from the Lonely Island boys. (The best is either the song that equates a really good hook-up with the murder of Bin Laden or Connor paying ode to gay rights while repeatedly assuring us he’s hetero, complete with subliminal shots of heaving cleavage.) On occasion it will draw blood, almost by accident: “There’s no such thing as selling out anymore,” Connor at one point intones. “If you don’t sell out they’ll think no one’s asking.”

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But “Popstar” prefers to fight with kid’s gloves. That’s not entirely a bad thing. The plot, such that it is, charts Connor as his latest album, “Conquest,” turns out to be a doozy, underselling and, much worse, scoring a negative four on Pitchfork. Connor’s mental implosion is justly deserved, but we’re also forced to see him — and the many icons that inspired this creation, from Bieber to Timberlake to Macklemore — as infallible, human, if only barely. It’s not just that we’re asked to feel for the rich and powerful. It sees Connor as the happy and willing prisoner of the media netherworld we’ve willed into existence. It reminds us this is an era where album sales are ever plummeting but stars can always stay stars by feeding the social media beast. Even if Bieber didn’t sell he’d still thrive as a gossip mainstay.

“Popstar” isn’t smart or brave enough to go all the way with this, or even to acknowledge there are still pop stars, like Beyonce, who can sell substance while fanning their fame. What it does know is that a decent gag or distraction can serve as a decent palliative. When Bill Hader swings by as a roadie whose favorite pastime is “flatlining” — a la the movie “Flatliners” — all is forgiven, at least until the next joke comes, and we forgot Hader ever appeared. “Popstar” might think it’s sending up the music industry, but it’s really sending up how our brains work in 2016. And it might have done that purely by accident.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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