[Like the "10 for 10" series but a little longer. It's my endeavor to clean the backlog slate (with some things watched well over a year ago now) this month with 20 reviews written in 20 minutes (each) over 20 days. Oops, I missed a day. Damn, well obviously this isn't doing it's job very well. I started the first few days getting out of bed at 7:30 and barfing one of these out. Then it was 12:30, and then late in the afternoon, and then, not at all. Now it's late and I'm trying to barf out a few before I fall asleep. Habits, man, they're hard to start and hard to quit.]
2016, d. Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer
Comedy is about the hardest thing to be successful with in film. Senses of humour can be based on influences that are regional, national, continental, racial, generational, sexual, even denominational. People's senses of humour can be based on their intelligence level, their EQ (aka "emotional intelligence"), their exposure to the greater world (pop culture or current affairs or politics).. our senses of humour can mature as we age or it can remain stunted. One person's funny is not always going to be someone else's. Making a comedy to appeal to all of these broad spectrums (and so many more left unmentioned) is an impossibility, and the more you try to broaden the appeal of your comedy the more you dilute the humour.
With stand-up, you're dealing with a specific point of view, and that perspective can be alien, alienating, or alluring (or varying mixes therein), but it's relatively pure, the product of one mind, honing and crafting a set over time, through repeated trial and error. With movies, though, you have so many variables, starting with writing then casting and directing and finally editing (with a couple dozen other variables tossed in the mix). So much can go wrong, and with filmmaking time is money. It can take so much effort to make something spectacularly unfunny.
Then again, it can take so much effort to make something spectacularly unfunny to one person, but uproarious to someone else. Context, as well, can matter. One comedy film seen with a large audience in a theatre can be an amazing time, while that same comedy in a nearly empty theatre or alone at home or watching on the bus on a phone it could seem like a dire production. Laughter is infectious. It's why sitcoms still use laugh tracks, some even with studio audiences, to guide the viewer along -- home alone or a small family -- towards the laughs, even if it's not particularly funny, at least to give the impression of humour.
All that said, I don't understand how Popstar: Never Stop Stopping -- the first full movie from the "Lonely Island" trio of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer -- cost $15 million to make but only grossed around $10 million at the box office. The trio have had platinum-selling albums, Saturday Night Live "Digital Shorts" which received tens of millions of views on youtube, and Samberg has been all over the television spectrum, from the popular Brooklyn 99 to successful gigs hosting award shows and even producing short sports mocumentaries for HBO. With all that at their backs, how did Popstar not at least make it's modest budget back?
Really, it's a bigger question than 20 minutes will allow ... time is already up, but I'ma keep going. The answer is a lot of what I was speaking to above. It's about the audience you're trying to get. The title, Popstar: Never Stop Stopping is supposed to invoke the vapid documentaries of inexplicably popular musicians like Justin Beiber: Never Say Never, so on the one hand is it trying to attract the people who like those types of musicians, or are you trying to draw in those who don't? Marketing for the film tried to have their cake and eat it too, when the film is more clearly on the side of making fun of these self-important, over-entitled trashbags.
Likewise, Popstar isn't a direct parody of any particular artist (and having not seen any of these kinds of documentaries, I can't really say if it invokes them) so there's not something tangible or instantly recognizable to grab onto as a lampoon or satire. Unlike a Spinal Tap which has aged like a fine wine documenting the journey of a popular band having spectacular failures on tour and whose members are dim or eccentric, Popstar doesn't know what to make of its star - Conner 4 Real - and his catalog. On the one hand they proclaim that his defunct white boy hip-hop crew, the Style Boyz, is beloved and legendary and dearly missed, but on the other hand the music we see doesn't quite bear that out. We're supposed to believe that Conner's first solo effort was a global sensation, a smash hit that broke every conceivable record, but again, the music doesn't bear that out. Then the film posits that his latest album is a travesty, a mindless hot garbage fire, but it honestly isn't that different than anything else we've heard from the previous album or from the Style Boyz.
The problem is the Lonely Island is famous for their music, which is always part genre satire (like "I'm on a Boat" or "Dick in a Box", but with a defiantly silly lyrical bent. They tend to come together exquisitely well, with catchy hooks and often a big guest artist like Rhianna or Justin Timberlake or even Michael Bolton. These music videos and sketches are their lifeblood and they couldn't get away from making good crappy songs or goofy good songs enough to service the needs of the film. They were looking for another platinum record methinks. Unfortunately, the songs on Popstar are some of the weakest they've written in that regard. Oh, there's some real gems, but most of it feels a little like filler. It's their version of "Weird" Al's UHF, not one of Al's strongest albums. So the fact that the album which should have sold the film was one of their lesser efforts probably didn't do their box office any favors.
Putting the music aside, getting back to target audience. The Lonely Island's target audience is used to consuming their stuff in bite-sized chunks, digitally, and largely for free. Asking them to pay for it or go out of their way to get it, like in a movie theatre, was probably too much to ask. They could have had better success producing a sketch comedy film (though, those types of film tend to flounder at the box office too) which would eventually be dissected across the internet but would have tremendous longevity.
All that said... and that's a lot said, in double the allotted time... I freaking loved the film. It's a true-on mocumentary, following Conner as his latest album flounders, his celebrity starts to fade, and his ego takes a sever bruising. It's such a perfunctory fall-from-grace plot, but the cast, which extends to Tim Meadows, Chris Redd, Sarah Silverman, and a veritable legion of celebrity cameos (I mean Seal gets mauled by wolves... I don't wish the man ill will, but that's just frickin funny, and even funnier in context). I fully admit that it won't be to everyone's tastes, but if you generally find the SNL "Digital Shorts" funny, it's more of that, you know, largely silliness and absurdity, with some clever sight gags and sharply timed editing, as well as some savvy lampooning skills (like the "Equal Rights" song below). Those songs that don't play so well as a soundtrack album actually start to pop (no pun intended) in context in the film, becoming more memorable, even entering my Spotify playlists. It's not quite Spinal Tap but it just may have some legs. I'm more than likely to give this another couple of viewings over the years.