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Review: Andy Samberg is perfectly dim in the pop pastiche ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’

“Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”
Andy Samberg stars in “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.”
(Glen Wilson / Universal Pictures)

The high notes arrive early on in “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” a far-from-subtle but frequently inspired sendup of celebrity self-absorption from the Lonely Island trio — those whip-smart boys-to-men who gave us “Like a Boss,” “I’m on a Boat” and other viral master classes in musical satire (my personal favorite is unprintable here).

Andy Samberg, the genial star of that outfit, plays Conner Friel (aka Conner4Real), a swaggering white-boy rapper with tattoos on his arms, bling around his neck and nothing in his head. Splitting the difference between “This Is Spinal Tap” and an episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music,” this fast, funny mockumentary is never faster or funnier than when it’s rifling through Conner’s albums (like “Thriller, Also”) and sampling his biggest, most dubious hits.

The first one we hear is “I’m So Humble,” an ode to personal modesty that features lyrics like “Bar none, I am the most humblest / No. 1 at the top of the humble list.” No less self-contradictory is the cheerfully moronic “Equal Rights,” whose high-minded refrain (“I’m not gay / But if I were / I would want equal rights”) morphs into a clueless display of homosexual panic. The music video, sure to wind up in heavy rotation on YouTube, features a shower of rainbow flags while various same-sex couples arch their eyebrows.

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You’ll recognize those eyebrows if you’ve spent any time watching the Lonely Island’s videos, which came to fame by way of “Saturday Night Live” and served as a terrific calling card for Samberg and his collaborators Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. (The latter two directed “Popstar,” while all three appear in the movie and share screenwriting credit.) In songs like “Lazy Sunday” and “I Just Had Sex,” the Lonely Island boys took gleeful aim at all manner of young American male appetites — for sex, for fame, for cupcakes. But as their songwriting talents matured, along with their DIY production values, the trio reserved their sharpest critique for the very form they were appropriating (and excelling at).

Again and again they mocked the anything-for-a-rhyme inanity of so many rap lyrics, the mindless aesthetics of so many music videos, and the lifestyle excesses of so much musical stardom. What the trio nailed in short form, they have tried to reproduce at feature length in “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” — which, while as scattershot and repetitive as these enterprises typically are, scores a much higher batting average than many “SNL” sketch-to-film adaptations have managed. (This review, in a tweet: “Popstar” > “Superstar”)

“Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is headlined by (from left) Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone, collectively known as The Lonely Island.
"Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping" is headlined by (from left) Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone, collectively known as The Lonely Island.
(Universal Pictures )

The movie’s title is an amusing nod to the 2011 concert documentary “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” and Conner is clearly modeled on that ubiquitous pop sensation. They have a lot in common: a childhood love of the drums (as seen here in faux home-movie footage), hordes of screaming fans, green letterman jackets, and a thorough obliviousness to their own over-exposure. When Conner visits the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and leaves behind an unexpected gift, you are absolutely meant to flash back to a kinda-similar incident in 2013 that shoved Bieber’s narcissism onto the international stage.

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But the world of popular music is scarcely lacking in ripe targets, and Bieber is not Conner’s sole inspiration. Not unlike Justin Timberlake with ’N Sync or Nick Jonas with the Jonas Brothers, Conner started out with a popular boy band before going solo, leaving his best buddies and longtime co-stars in the dust. Lawrence (Schaffer), the brains of the group, became an embittered, weed-growing Colorado hermit, while the loyal Owen (Taccone) was demoted to Conner’s DJ, enduring such humiliations as having to perform under a Deadmau5-style helmet. But Conner, plagued by harsh reviews and sluggish sales for his new album, and increasingly abusive of his closest friends and supporters, is overdue for a fall from grace.

Timberlake, as it happens, is a regular Lonely Island guest performer who pops up in a throwaway role here as Conner’s under-appreciated executive chef, as if to remind the audience what a good sport he is. “Popstar” would play better without those constant wink-wink reassurances, which — much like the obligatory wall-to-wall cameos from the likes of Mariah Carey, Nas, Usher, 50 Cent, Carrie Underwood, Simon Cowell and (most amusingly) Ringo Starr — serve only to dull the satire’s edge.

Then again, perhaps a more savage takedown would have seemed even more off-base. The real (or 4real) joke of “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is that the music biz, in all its absurdity and ego-stroking toxicity, has long since entered stranger-than-fiction territory. Conner may have a pet turtle and a crazy mom (Joan Cusack, wasted in more than one sense), and he does experience an embarrassing on-stage wardrobe malfunction. But at least he doesn’t bite the heads off bats or write bizarre tweets about in-flight water bottles. Nor does he physically abuse his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) and turn it into song fodder. His public clash with an up-and-coming rapper (Chris Redd) and his private squabbles with his longtime manager (Tim Meadows) are, by real-world standards, pretty tame stuff.

The thin story that Samberg and his cohorts have cobbled together — a rise-and-fall-and-rise-again narrative that ends in a predictable orgy of bro hugs and bong hits — is beside the point. So, too, is the mockumentary format, to which the movie commits so loosely as to make the films of Christopher Guest look like formalist achievements of the highest order. (It’s safe to say no episode of “Behind the Music” would feature this much full-frontal male nudity, thrown in perhaps to verify the movie’s Judd Apatow production bona fides.)

The pleasure of “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” derives not from the sting or accuracy of its satire (though Will Arnett does a pretty killer Harvey Levin), but from the precision of its timing and the singular comic energy it derives from the talents on display. Samberg, with his crooked, lupine grin and an endearingly doofus-y air that persists no matter how much bling he’s wearing, is in some ways as convincing a pop star as Ben Stiller is a supermodel. It’s precisely that incongruousness, combined with Samberg’s genuine musical abilities, that makes him such an inspired choice in the role.

And really, only a singular talent could knock out a song as defiantly tasteless as “Finest Girl (bin Laden).” I’m not sure I want to see “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” again — its title to the contrary, one go-round with this kind of movie is usually enough — but I’d wait in line to see the Lonely Island’s “Zero Dark Thirty! The Musical.”

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‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’

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Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

MPAA rating: R for some graphic nudity, language throughout, sexual content and drug use

Playing: In wide release

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justin.chang@latimes.com

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