Remake The Graduate today, and an adult might corner Benjamin Braddock and whisper, "Startups." Debut director Max Joseph gives that a good shot, though the result — the EDM-fueled, drug-laced dream-crusher We Are Your Friends — is so sweaty and silly people may not notice. Like Mike Nichols, Joseph wants to tell the story of a 23-year-old boy-man lost in the suburbs of Los Angeles. In the late Sixties, the hippies forced the young to admit the whole school-job-stability system was busted. Today, it's the hipsters who are soured by the recession. Cole (Zac Efron) and his fellow San Fernando Valley slackers Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) and Mason (Jonny Weston, fantastic) think college is for suckers. Why waste your youth when kids make millions inventing phone apps? And why invent a phone app when you can strike it rich doing something fun — say, acting, party promoting or superstar DJ'ing, i.e., the dream career for any dude with a laptop?
Cole and Mason live in a rent-free pool house, the post-Kato Kaelin shorthand for pretty-boy wannabes. They dream of escaping over the hill to the big city, a ten-minute drive that Joseph — a New Yorker — imagines is as impossible as scaling the Rockies. When Mason talks up his favorite strip-mall sushi joint at a party, a Hollywood bro scoffs, "Does this girl look like she eats in the Valley?" Snipes another, "North Hollywood? Is that a real place?!"
Cole is the DJ, which means he squanders time on his laptop and wears headphones around his neck to look cool. Mason, his unofficial manager, is a fast-talking scavenger. If Mason had been born to rich New England prepsters, he'd be in politics. But here, he's happy enough tricking sorority girls into coming to nightclubs on Thursdays, when Cole spins in the sidebar. Boasts Mason, "Ninety-nine percent of people are looking for the party. One percent is the party." The next step is success...somehow. The movie fist-bumps their bravado as they strut past the red rope to command the V.I.P. list.
We Are Your Friends
Directed by Max Joseph. With Zac Efron, Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer and Emily Ratajkowski. Rated R.
But Joseph, who previously co-hosted the TV show Catfish, has made his career exposing frauds. Just when you might think you're watching Entourage for Infants, the movie zooms back one degree and we see the boys through a larger lens: the club-door girl who rolls her eyes behind Mason's back, the cooler kids at a posh pool soiree who sneer at their too-flashy tees. These beta males aren't fooling anyone. Perhaps not even themselves.
Here's what happens when you're young in L.A. You watch your peers succeed or fail, move up or move home. Often, they'll try to convince you to come with — for better and worse. We Are Your Friends tracks the boys just as their path splinters: Cole is mentored by older globetrotting DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), the kind of bore who over-pronounces "Ibi-tha." Mason expects to be the plus-one to Cole's ascent. Wannabe actor Ollie just wants cash, by any means necessary. Only Squirrel, the scrawny philosopher, speaks their quiet fear: "Are we ever going to be better than this?"
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Just as disco powered Saturday Night Fever, the backbeat here is Cole and crew's obsession with electronic dance music: It's the pulse of their evenings. To old ears, EDM can sound as tacky as overplayed Bee Gees. Yet Cole's love is sincere, even as Joseph vacillates. In one scene, Cole takes PCP and blisses out at an art-gallery dance party. The colors spill out of the paintings, crawl across the floor and turn him and the rest of the revelers into pop-art cartoons. We get it. Sound is sensation. (And it's a lovely way of underscoring that callow Cole is innately 2-D.) But in the next scene, Joseph deliberately breaks the spell. Cole plays one of his own tracks for James over his cellphone. The kicks are tinny, the energy pathetic. In the wrong, sober moment, EDM shrivels.
Still, EDM, a symphony of samples, can be more intimate than rock. DJs literally distill their world into music. Here, Cole finds inspiration in the ka-chunk of a staple gun and the vvrrrrrip of his crush's (Emily Ratajkowski) zippered jacket. (Audiences, though, will be less inspired by their flaccid romance.) Can Cole turn the sounds of the Valley into art? Even if he can, will anyone twerk?
To answer these questions, We Are Your Friends indulges in hyperactive visual breakdowns of EDM structure, at one point animating the ideal beats-per-minute over Ratajkowski's heartbeat (and, by coincidence, her bouncing, unfettered bosoms). It's fun and raw and dumb — perfect late-summer cinema. Yet Efron, one of our best young actors, gives the movie more than it needs: if not quite gravitas, an emotional tempo. Forget Ratajkowski's x-rayed mammaries — it's Efron who's all heart. Even when he smiles, his blue eyes look like they're leaking tears.
The script keeps Cole too naive. A good-looking kid like him should know how to hustle. Joseph tries to put Cole's soul in peril. At his lowest point, what a DJ would call The Drop, Cole confesses to James that he might be a bad person. But, like Braddock, he's a buoyant screw-up — the audience is on his side even if the film isn't. "Man," replies James, "you're not even a real person until you're 27." If only he'd then slung an arm around Cole and hissed, "House music."