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Review: Samberg sends up music biz in patchy ‘Popstar’

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

As a satire of modern pop stardom, “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” could use a little more pop.

Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island compadres, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, navigate this tale of Conner4Real (Samberg), an ex-boy bander whose career hits a crossroads when his new album tanks.

The framework is an excuse for a host of cameos from pop and hip-hop stars — Nas, Usher, DJ Khaled, Mariah Carey, Carrie Underwood and Seal all play themselves — and jokes about the modern music scene.

Conner releases his new album through a deal where it is automatically uploaded to every kitchen appliance in America, a riff on U2’s deal where their album was uploaded to everyone’s iTunes account without their consent, and Conner releases a song celebrating gay marriage while over-asserting his own heterosexuality, a play on Macklemore’s “Same Love.” There’s also a song called “Incredible Thoughts” where everyday ideas are masked as deeply profound theories, a la Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles.”

Those jokes land. Overall though, “Popstar” feels patchy, like a series of “Saturday Night Live” Digital Shorts strung together over a faux-documentary narrative.

“Popstar” makes the same mistake as “Get Him to the Greek” and other send-ups of the music industry in that its central figure isn’t at least semi-believable as a pop star. Conner is too much of a clown to be taken seriously in any realm. Yes, when you look at Justin Bieber, his stardom seems crazy, but at his core, he has songs and a persona which connects with his fans.

Yes, “Popstar” is a comedy — and a spoof of the music industry at that — but you can never really buy that Conner is as big a star or as important a figure as he’s made out to be in the world of the film. In order to ground things, something needs to connect — the same goes for Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd), the rapper who is made out to be an emerging star to rival Conner — and it never quite does.

It also feels a little too easy and a little too soft. The Lonely Island have been sending up pop music for more than a decade and have three albums of goof-pop-rap under their belts, and their songs work best when they have real hooks and relevant themes behind them.

“Lazy Sunday” was hilarious and it worked as a commentary on average dudes who grew up listening to an overabundance of gangsta rap, and “I’m on a Boat” cleverly sent up rap video cliches while featuring a killer T-Pain hook to boot, just like the ones that could be found on the songs they were spoofing. The reflexivity sold the material.

The songs in “Popstar” feel like B-grade Lonely Island songs; “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” and “Donkey Roll” are instantly forgettable and wouldn’t make the group’s Greatest Hits set.

Good laughs do emerge, the best coming from an ongoing series of “TMZ” spoofs with Will Arnett in the Harvey Levin role, sending up his ever-present obnoxious drink containers. And Justin Timberlake — the ringer in several Lonely Island jams — has several strong moments as Conner’s personal chef.

But “Popstar” doesn’t have the hunger or the go-for-broke humor of the Lonely Island’s 2007 debut offering “Hot Rod.” Instead, it’s like a pop singer who has settled in a mid-career comfort zone. It’s more fizzle than sizzle.

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‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’


Rated R for some graphic nudity, language throughout, sexual content and drug use

Running time: 86 minutes