September 04, 2015

We Are Your Friends

Come on, Wes ... you're going to make us watch
"American Beauty" again?!

Grade: C –
Director: Max Joseph
Starring: Zac Efron, Emily Ratajkowski, Wes Bentley, Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer, Jonny Weston and Joey Rudman
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.

The Scarface poster hanging on the bedroom wall of Cole Carter (Zac Efron) is more than decoration in We Are Your Friends. Swapping the South Florida drug trade for the SoCal electronic dance music (EDM) scene, the 23-year-old Cole is our baby-faced Tony Montana, an up-and-coming DJ hoping to graduate from spinning in LA clubs for free drinks to becoming rich and famous. Cole is mentored by a successful but burned-out DJ, James Reed (Wes Bentley). Meanwhile, Cole has eyes for James’ live-in girlfriend/assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski, filling the Michelle Pfeiffer part).

Cole also has his quartet of bros, who wile away their days partying, ingesting illicit substances and hoping to get out of the San Fernando Valley. They get by thanks to the occasional house-cleaning gig and working the phones for a shady foreclosure shark (Jon Bernthal).

This feature film debut by writer-director Max Joseph is an on-the-nose perusal of today’s Valley of lost dreams, littered with underwater homes and unemployed would-be actors. However, it’s also the movie equivalent of Red Bull and AXE body spray, with its too-cool rendering of youthful exuberance at odds with the milieu’s underlying emptiness.

Wait, wasn’t this film supposed to delve into the EDM scene, popularized by the recent widespread acclaim of DJs like Skrillex and Calvin Harris? Unfortunately, any such exploration is few and far between here. Bentley transcends this admittedly thin script, lacquering complexity onto a two-dimensional role by portraying James as a skilled but boozy talent at odds with his mainstream celebrity. The byplay between Cole and James briefly pulls back the curtain on both the mechanics and subculture of EDM.

But while EDM lore says that the ideal DJ track of 128 beats-per-minute synchronizes neatly with a dancer’s accelerated heartbeat, We Are Your Friends never seems to break a sweat. For a film with the chutzpah to track the plotline to Scarface and a few dozen similar coming-of-age flicks—Saturday Night Fever, for example—it doesn’t have the courage to retain any sort of tragic or even bittersweet denouement, notwithstanding the ornamental death of an underwritten character. Everyone bro-hugs it out as any character conflicts evaporate into an air of chest-thumping optimism. Cole cribs his (rather underwhelming) One Big Track from his ambient everyday. A single mom even gets to keep her home.

“Imitation is suicide,” James warns Cole. If so, then We Are Your Friends is virtually DOA.

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