Midway through “We Are Your Friends,” aspiring California DJ Cole (Zac Efron) tells his mentor James (Wes Bentley) that he’s going for an electronic dance music (EDM) sound that mixes a variety of disparate styles – a fitting artistic path given the film he’s in, which combines genres with a haphazardness that’s as off-putting as Cole’s early tunes. For his directorial debut, Max Joseph (who co-wrote the script with Meaghan Oppenheimer) exhibits a knack for conveying the electricity of techno but little in the way of storytelling aptitude, smushing together a variety of tales that never coalesce into a compelling whole. It’s as if, for his first feature, Joseph sought to make every young-adult movie he’d ever seen, all at once. The result is a misshapen mess that only truly hums when it ditches its various, equally paper-thin plotlines and fixates on the thrill of a pulsating beat and the euphoria of a crowd jumping up and down in perfect, ecstatic harmony.
The center of attention in “We Are Your Friends” is Cole, a good-looking twentysomething who aspires to laptop-music greatness while partying and playing shows in the San Fernando Valley, a locale from which he and his best friends – rowdy Mason (Jonny Weston), brainiac Squirrel (Alex Shaffer), and drug-dealing wannabe actor Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) – wish to escape. Their rabble-rousing gives Joseph an excuse to stage elaborate shindigs full of writhing female bodies, copious drug use, and general misbehavior, though such fun is complicated by Cole’s budding friendship with James (Wes Bentley), a big-shot DJ who takes the protagonist under his wing. Consequently, the film immediately sets itself up as both a make-it-big-through-stardom fantasy and a drama about the push-pull between success and staying true to your crew – clichéd premises that are supplemented by Cole’s romantic dilemma involving his budding feelings for James’ sexy girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski, of “Blurred Lines” fame).
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Will Cole sleep with Sophie, thus jeopardizing his relationship with James (and his chance at celebrity)? Will he abandon his mates for the high life, or eventually realize that friendship is more important than fame? And will he – in yet another subplot – continue working for an immoral real estate cretin (Jon Bernthal) or strive to make a positive impact on the world? If those questions sound less than wholly original, the answers provided by “We Are Your Friends” are no more novel, just as the resolutions to its conflicts prove half-baked. Overflowing with points of interest, Joseph turns out to be only cursorily concerned with his characters as three-dimensional people; rather, he routinely sets up standard-issue dramatic dynamics, and then wraps them up with easy-bake apologies and reconciliations. Given that everything is easily solved by bros hugging it out, it’s almost impossible to take the movie’s platitudes about seizing the day, making the most of one’s life, and channeling one’s heritage into meaningful art (and amorous connections) the least bit seriously.
Efron does his best selling Cole’s internal awakenings, but the character is so thinly drawn that he comes across as a good kid who’s having the time of his life and, despite his mistakes, destined to come out on top. At least Efron is charismatic, however, which is more than can be said about his trio of buddies, who register as bland cardboard cut-outs and whose fates are handled in thoroughly glib fashion (Squirrel in particular). Bentley, meanwhile, gets a few amusing lines, which helps redeem his character’s beyond-hackneyed construction – even if his mentoring sessions with Efron are generally inert and, in his every scene with Ratajkowski, he’s upstaged by the actresses’ constantly-ogled-by-the-camera cleavage.
In its loving vistas of twinkling nocturnal cityscapes and its humorous vignettes about the San Fernando Valley, “We Are Your Friends” suggests the glitzy, sensual appeal of Los Angeles to anyone with a dream and/or a libido. Moreover, Joseph’s slow motion-heavy montages play like rapturous music videos and his performance sequences are highly attuned to EDM’s thudding rhythms. Unfortunately, if the material hits a captivating groove when it sets aside its teenage angst and love triangles and dives headfirst into digitized melodies, such pleasures are fleeting. Ultimately too busy fracturing his story’s focus and indulging in gimmicky textual graphics to really tap into either Hollywood’s or electronica’s magnetic appeal, Joseph’s debut proves to be a film with mood to spare but nothing much to say. [C]