Movie Review: “We Are Your Friends”

Starring
Zac Efron, Emily Ratajkowski, Wes Bentley, Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer, Jon Bernthal
Director
Max Joseph

For the first third of the movie, “We Are Your Friends” suffers from the exact same problem as its protagonist: it’s trying to combine too many disparate ideas, and is a disjointed mess. When it (thankfully) jettisons the “Entourage” angle of the story, along with the Denis Leary-narrated Ford F 150-style graphics (yep, every word spoken appears on screen, multiple characters do it, and it never works), the movie finally finds its, ahem, rhythm. It turns out, “We Are Your Friends” is “Magic Mike” with turntables, right down to the party scenes oozing with so much potential disease transmission that I wanted a shot of penicillin afterwards, and I’m allergic to penicillin.

Cole (Zac Efron) is an aspiring DJ, playing early sets in the club that his friends promote in exchange for cash, free drinks and, if they play their cards right, women. One night, he opens for popular DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), and the two wind up partying together. James sees Cole’s potential, and pushes him to come up with a track that will make his name, offering him excellent advice (and free studio time) on how he can find his voice. Cole is grateful for all of this, but it does not stop him from developing feelings for James’ much younger, live-in romantic assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), even though he knows it could jeopardize his best shot at getting to the next level. Cole is also starting to realize how unambitious his friends are, but struggles with cutting the ties.

Emily Ratajkowski has been a model since she was 14 years old, so she’s presumably seen and heard it all, but even she had to have paused for a second or two when director and co-screenwriter Max Joseph may or may not have said to her, “I’m going to shoot a couple of slow-mo bits of you dancing, and the camera is going to be focused on nothing but your rack. You’re cool with that, right?” Clearly, she was cool with that, as the scenes are here (said rack received similar attention in “Gone Girl”), but it has to be disheartening as an actress when you’re trying to build a body of work, and the director spends a substantial amount of time not focusing on your face.

One of the things “We Are Your Friends” gets right is that most kids going out into the world, especially ones that have to fend for themselves right out of high school (the audience only meets one of the boys’ parents, so they are presumably on their own), are hopelessly naïve. Any adult can anticipate 90% of the film’s plot, because they’ve been there before. Cole, on the other hand, hasn’t been there before, and Efron does a nice job of portraying that lack of experience. Unfortunately, what that makes this film is the story of a kid making mistake after mistake until he figures it out. Even the party scenes have a sadness to them, as Cole and his mates remain those immature dopes who take unspeakable jobs for cash (working for a very well-cast Jon Bernthal) so they can continue Living the Lifestyle. They’re pathetic, and that’s the point, but they’re still pathetic.

There are flashes of potential here and there, though. Efron’s explanation of the science of getting people dancing, dissecting beat speeds and which parts of the body to “attack,” as it were, is enlightening, as is the sequence where he takes a tip from James – who takes a trick from former Depeche Mode member Alan Wilder’s playbook from 30 years ago – and starts looking for sounds not already loaded into his computer. (The final result is a pretty sweet track.) Wes Bentley might seem an odd choice for James, but he’s actually quite good as the damaged veteran collecting his checks wherever he can. Ratajkowski has less to work with; ultimately, the story is about Cole and James, and she occasionally gets in the way. She is a fabulous dancer, though.

The most perplexing thing about “We Are Your Friends” is its title. The movie tells Cole at every turn that he needs to leave his friends behind, so who does the phrase ‘we are your friends’ actually apply to? Are the music festival crowds his new friends? (Answer: they’re not.) It doesn’t seem to relate to the story at all, unless that’s only half of the title, and the full title is really “We Are Your Friends, and We’re Holding You Back.” Either way, this film could use more than just a new title.

  

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