It’s amazing how much ego a human being can have if left unchecked. That’s the lesson found in two current movies that are seemingly disparate on the surface, but have a lot in common in both form and substance.
“Popstar” manages to make Conner more likable as it goes on, while “Weiner” makes viewers feel both laughter and contempt for its subject as it unfolds.
“Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is a ridiculously funny mockumentary spoofing the boy band/Justin Bieber craze by following what happens when a singer named Conner (Andy Samberg) breaks up with his vocal group to go solo and finds everything in his life goes awry.
Meanwhile, “Weiner” is a ridiculously funny documentary that finds both great comedy and tragedy in the ego-driven sexting scandal and New York City mayoral campaign of former Democratic New York Congressman Anthony Weiner.
The fascinating thing about these films is it’s almost impossible to tell which one seems more absurd. And the fact that the events in “Weiner” actually happened makes it even more jaw-dropping.
“Popstar” comes from the trio of comedic geniuses known as The Lonely Island — former “Saturday Night Live” star Andy Samberg and his writer-director partners Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer — in their first attempt at a full-length movie following dozens of brilliant shorts on “SNL.” It follows the story of Conner, the breakout member of a vocal group called Style Boyz, who are basically a cluelessly obscene combination of the Beastie Boys and Backstreet Boys.
While its opening credits give a history of Conner’s rise through his own self-aggrandizing narration and reveal that the Style Boyz broke up in an onstage mid-concert fight, its main events take place as he prepares to launch his second solo CD and attendant concert tour. Unfortunately, Conner wants to make his new songs have social relevance — while he is personally a classless nitwit. His debut single, in which he advocates gay marriage while also repeatedly rapping that he’s not gay, winds up drawing embarrassingly bad reviews.
Things get worse as his album tanks, his concert ticket sales are fading fast, and his manager (Tim Meadows) brings in an extremely aggressive rapper named Hunter as an opening act. When the crowds embrace Hunter more than Conner, and Hunter pulls a devastating prank on Conner’s wardrobe that results in viral-level public humiliation, Conner’s life spirals out of control. Can he ever get the magic back?
“Popstar” perfectly mimics the deluge of stupid celebrity-worshiping shows like “E! Hollywood True Story” that fill way too much of the TV dial. Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer have pulled in one of the most extensive cameo casts in memory, with Mariah Carey and Seal used to particularly great effect.
The movie zips along, tearing through an array of outrageous escapades before building in more depth in the final act. That last third of the movie gives it a much-needed shot of sweetness and humanity that helps Conner become more likable and makes “Popstar” more than just hollow fun.
“Weiner” shines fresh light on one of the most notorious political scandals of the past decade, as directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg enter the world of Weiner and his high-powered wife, Huma Abedin, in the midst of a storm brewing in their marriage. Weiner was forced to resign from Congress in 2011 after he admitted texting a photo of his erect private parts stuffed into his underpants to multiple women across the country.
Even though he apologized and managed to save his marriage to Abedin — who is most famous for being Hillary Clinton’s right-hand man for the past 15 years — Weiner pulled himself back into the spotlight two years later to run for New York City mayor. Just as he hit the top of the polls in that race, however, Weiner was busted again for sexting photos to even more women.
How he and Abedin handle that second crisis and the media circus surrounding it makes “Weiner” a fascinating exploration of tabloid culture as well.
But while “Popstar” manages to make Conner more likable as it goes on, “Weiner” makes viewers feel both laughter and contempt for its subject as it unfolds. This truly is a gut-bustingly funny documentary, even as it shares a story of modern-day tragedy.
The fact that there are so many parallels between a fictional pop star and a real-life disgraced politician is yet another sign that we’re living in a world where everything is becoming presented to us as entertainment — whether it’s pop culture or politics. As journalism tries to shock us into paying attention, the lines will continue to blur, while serious reporting about deeper issues will be ignored.
That Weiner allowed his documentary’s directors so much access to his life is an example of his even bigger problem: that the hubris that enables a person to think they can win the votes of thousands of strangers can also cause their downfall by making them believe — just like Conner did — that they’re unstoppable.