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It’s appropriately crass, pointedly satirical, and just broad enough to deliver big, stomach-hurting laughs to be forever cemented through interminably told in-jokes between jokey friends.
Being the “Fear of a Black Hat” (1993) descendant that it is, you can bet that “Popstar’s” parodical jabs successfully target the absurdities of musical superstardom, its caustic bullets specifically taking aim at Justin Bieber and, more prominently, his cheese-stuffed 2011 rockumentary “Never Say Never.” “Popstar’s” Biebs is man-child Conner “Conner4Real” Friel (a magnificent Andy Samberg), an egotistical maniac in the process of pursuing a solo career after finding success with hip-hop trio The Style Boyz (its other members portrayed by Lonely Island staples Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone).
Whereas the real world’s JB is perhaps better able to back up his bad behavior with undeniable musical talent (he’s a percussionist prodigy who also happens to have an elastic voice), Conner’s got nothing except boorishness that somehow, according to his publicist (Sarah Silverman), “makes so many people money.” He surrounds himself with gaudy playthings to keep him smug, swag wanting-but-not-having friends who find the time to agree with everything he says, rappers who have more mystique he could ever call for with the snap of a one hundred karated, gold ring decked finger. Conner is the type of narcissistic celebrity – the kind with a Snapchat fetish and a deplorable habit of oversharing – who grips the public’s interest for no reason easily explicable.
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In “Popstar,” we see Conner in the pre and post stages of the release of his sophomore album, which, like George Michael’s “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1” (1990), is preceded by a mega-seller so mega that numbers have to be Mothra-sized to ensure staying power. With catchy tunes like “Finest Girl” (which details Conner’s plans to please a woman with the same force of the government’s fucking of Bin Laden) and “Equal Rights” (a “Same Love” lampoon more bent on making it clear that Conner’s straight as an arrow than actually catering to national discourse), the singer/rapper’s certain that he has another knockout on his hands.
But when copies hit stands is it clear that things aren’t “connecting” as well as last time. “Pitchfork” gives the album, aptly titled “Connquest,” a never-before-seen -0.4/10 rating, “Rolling Stone” throws its star system away for the poop emoji, and first week sales are an abysmal 64,000. Heavy duty damage control is imminent, and Conner and his cohorts are desperate to elevate him to the beloved figure that he once was. But everyone, it seems, wants him to get back together with The Style Boyz, who, according to the truckload of cameoing A-list musicians, remain to be an influential, everlastingly relevant group. Swallowing his ego could benefit him hugely. But Conner, so in love with himself and himself only, isn’t so sure he can again embark on a career in which he isn’t the strict center of attention.
And maybe, like Conner, we’d prefer if things stayed strictly oriented in his direction – “Popstar” is at its weakest when it’s most sincere. Because the last act of the film is dedicated to the sort of jokingly dramatic but still off-puttingly dramatic scenes that derail a classic sitcom every so often, the shift between riotous broadness to (mostly) straight-faced candor is jarring, especially since all coming before it is so jammed with long, loud, and ludicrous laughs that come every twenty seconds or so.
But any comedy (especially a comedy released in the frequently uninspired 2010s) jammed with long, loud, and ludicrous laughs that come every twenty seconds or so is a sign of a good one, and “Popstar,” by any standard, is terrific. As it went with “Anchorman” (2004), a similarly unabashedly wacky lark, aggressive rib-ticklings are a given. The jokes, visual or otherwise, are written with such knowing dementia and told with such sharpened comic timing that we don’t have much choice but to rear back in our guffaws. With so many cameos (featuring wonderful guest spots from Maya Rudolph, Will Arnett, Justin Timberlake, and Pink), hilariously vulgar (albeit memorable) songs, and cultural mockeries (the movie’s “TMZ” ridiculing is one of its funniest recurring gags), “Popstar’s” too uproarious to fail. It’s one of the best comedies of 2016.
That it failed at the box-office, making $9 million against a budget of $20, both makes sense and doesn’t make any sense. It makes sense because advertising was so awful – I remain haunted by the relentless Spotify ads that highlighted all the movie’s least funny, most Sandler-esque cracks – but it also doesn’t make sense because word of mouth has ample power and the film’s much too delightful not to warrant a passionate recommendation. In any case, “Popstar’s” destined to reach the status of a cult classic; it’s the runaway success that wasn’t.