June 03, 2016

A Tale of Two Egos: one make-believe and one real-life light up the silver screen this weekend

By Carl Kozlowski *

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: Never Stop Never Stopping” is a ribald yet occasionally 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 also surprisingly funny, a documentary that finds both great comedy and tragedy in the ego-driven sexting scandal and New York City mayoral campaign of former 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 is jaw-dropping.

“Popstar” comes from the comedic trio 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 that late-night TV institution. 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. The problem is, Conner has decided to make his new songs have social relevance while he is personally a classless nitwit, and 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 humiliation, Conner’s life spirals out of control. Can he ever get the magic back?

“Popstar” is impressively made, perfectly mimicking the deluge of stupid celebrity-worshipping shows like “E! Hollywood True Story” that fill way too much of the TV dial. Samberg, Taccone and Schaeffer 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 dirty song lyrics and 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.

But unfortunately, despite the fairly positive resolution and Conner’s efforts to seek forgiveness for his arrogance, “Popstar” relies too much on shock-value lyrics and one egregiously gross and offensive scene involving a fully-seen penis to recommend viewing by discerning Catholics. There is also a quick moment in which Conner boasts of sleeping with ten women, and another offensive moment comes when his mom is shown snorting cocaine before it is implied she has sex with a much younger man.

“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, amid some of the hardest moments one can imagine having in marriage. Weiner was forced to resign from Congress in 2011 after he admitted texting a photo of his erect penis stuffed into his underpants to multiple women across the country.

Even though he apologized and managed to save his marriage to Abedin – who’s most famous for being Hillary Clinton’s right-hand aide for the past 15 years – Weiner felt drawn back into the spotlight two years later by his desire to run for the position of New York City mayor.   Just as he hit the top of the polls in that race, however, Weiner was busted again, for sexting photos of his exposed penis to even more women.

How he and Huma 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 very funny documentary, even as it is sharing a story of modern-day tragedy. The directors should be commended for handling the subject matter directly yet as tastefully as possible. The first round of the scandal is only implied in discussion rather than directly shown. But later, when Weiner was even more exposed in his second round of scandals, the filmmakers hide the offending image by digitizing it. There is very little foul language, and what is heard generally comes in passing from bystanders who had nothing to do with the scandal. Any adult who is either interested in the Weiner story or interested in the world of politics or media should definitely check this out.   

There are probably many parallels between the Weiner story and that of Bill Clinton, as both men were extremely popular politicians whose careers were impacted by their sexual peccadilloes and their wives stood by them far more patiently than most women would. That Weiner allowed its directors so much access to his life is an example of an even bigger problem: 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 they’re unstoppable. 

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.