Andy Samberg plays a white-boy rap star in a mockumentary that might have been funnier as an SNL Digital Short.
If Andy Samberg were still on “Saturday Night Live,” you wouldn’t have to close your eyes too hard to imagine Conner 4 Real, the cluelessly self-confident idiot white-boy rapper he plays in “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” as the featured playa on one of Samberg’s SNL Digital Shorts. Conner has tattoos running down his arms, and he sports a diamond earring, gold chains, and a hip-hop haircut so unthreatening it looks like it should be called the Ivy League Fade. A middle-class poseur who knows that he’s a sellout but pretends he’s a gangsta, Conner is straight outta Sacramento, and his success is a pure product of marketing. Yet all his trademarks — the baggy clothes and obscene lyrics, the palms-down “inner city” hand gestures — are signifiers of his authenticity.
If Samberg had sprung this character on us back in the day (as Conner himself might put it), he would probably have created an instant video classic to place alongside “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box.” At the very least, he could have ruled YouTube for a week or so. But let’s pretend that he made that Digital Short, and that it went viral, and that it became enough of a conversation piece to be spun off into its own big-screen mockumentary, and that the film — like almost every other “SNL” spin-off — turned out to be a terrific sketch inflated into a movie that overstays its welcome. “Popstar” is that movie. It longs to be a close-to-the-bone lampoon in the scathing spirit of Christopher Guest, and it has a few highly amusing moments, but it’s really a lightweight one-joke comedy.
The best thing about the movie is that Conner 4 Real, in 2016, comes off as not really all that farfetched a star. He grew up performing with his two buddies, Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer), and they became a teenage pop-rap trio called Style Boyz — a kind of high-gloss version of the Beastie Boys, or maybe ‘NSync with less harmony and more (nasty) rhymes. Part of the film’s observational slyness is its perception that hip-hop, at a certain point, became an entirely co-opted form: a pantomime of toughness for soft, safe suburban kids. Style Boyz, at least, are honest appropriators, but “Popstar” is about what happens when Conner breaks off from them to pursue a solo career as a prefab icon of sexed-up danger. Written, directed, and produced by Samberg and his long-time partners, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer (known collectively as The Lonely Island), the movie has a jaunty good time skewering the whorish showbiz media kaleidoscope — the tabloids, the corporate tie-ins, TMZ — but its satire of youth stardom is a little skin-deep.
Conner, once he becomes Conner 4 Real, is a crossover king who’s like Vanilla Ice with more convoluted fake street cred. But damned if the entire world doesn’t love him. “Popstar” is overflowing with rappers and other entertainers, all playing themselves, who appear in interview snippets to testify to Conner’s awesome badassery. They include Nas, 50 Cent, Usher, Questlove, Mariah Carey, Pharrell Williams, Ringo Starr, even the eternally hard-to-please Simon Cowell (“He really is the real deal!”). The obvious point of all these cameos is to create a texture of reality, but since most of the comments lack bite, the parade of celebrity comes off as something else — an advertisement of Andy Samberg’s superstar friends. Look at all the great people I got to be in my movie! There are even more of them in character roles: the usual gang of “SNL” alums (Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Tim Meadows — it’s mind-boggling to think that Will Ferrell isn’t in this movie), plus Justin Timberlake (as Conner’s personal chef), Sarah Silverman (as his publicist), Adam Levine (as an on-stage hologram), and Seal (as Seal, who serenades Conner and his fiancée and then gets torn apart by wolves). The movie isn’t just star-packed — it’s top-heavy. It doesn’t have much room for the spontaneity a comedy like this one needs.
In “Popstar,” Andy Samberg has cast himself as the Derek Zoolander of rap: a dazed narcissist doomed by his inability to think about anything but his own image. That’s a sweet peg for a sendup of the current pop-music marketplace, but Samberg, though he does blitzed self-obsession with tasty conviction, can’t hide his essentially friendly, eager-to-please nature. He’s playing a spoiled-brat pop star, but his performance doesn’t call up the naked ego of someone who’s drunk on fame. Christopher Guest, in “This Is Spinal Tap” (the clear inspiration for “Popstar”), made Nigel Tufnel a svelte prince of bombast who thought he walked on water. And Ben Stiller, in “Zoolander,” turned media-age vanity into a rowdy burlesque of grossly unentitled entitlement. But Andy Samberg’s homeboy cheekiness stays on the surface; it isn’t rich or — perhaps — daring enough to make Conner into a resonant douchebag. Mostly, Samberg seems to want to throw a wack communal media party. He may be too happy a camper to scald.
If “Popstar” had been an SNL Digital Short, the whole thing would have been a musical number, and a couple of Conner’s rap performances are, indeed, fantastically funny. The video for a song called “Equal Rights” (“I’m not gay, but if I were, I would want equal rights!”) is visually hilarious, even if the comic thrust — that Conner feels compelled to keep repeating that he’s “not gay” — grows a little didactic. And there’s one song that’s an absolute keeper: the one in which Conner compares how hard he wants to make love to someone to what the U.S. military did to Osama bin Laden. (I could say that in simpler language, but not on this website.) It’s almost triumphant in its mad myopia. You want to explode into giggles — and download the song.
“Popstar” eventually turns into a healing-hands buddy comedy, as Conner, his album sales tanking, falls from the limelight and has to get over himself enough to reunite with his former partners from Style Boyz: Jorma Taccone’s Owen, the DJ who Conner forces to wear a Daft Punk sci-fi helmet on stage, and Akiva Schaffer’s Lawrence, who becomes a farmer in a Unabomber beard. Taccone and Schaffer, the co-directors of “Popstar,” really are Samberg’s original boy band, and in a way the plot of the movie mimics what might almost have gone on behind the scenes. Taccone and Schaffer support their old pal by building a nice rollicking video funhouse for him to play around in. But when he’s out there on his own, they never totally show him how to bring the funny.