Right around the time of Sophie’s Choice, my Uncle Richard had a joke where he referred to every Meryl Streep movie as, “Sophie Goes To…”. So Out of Africa became “Sophie Goes to Africa” and A Cry in the Dark was “Sophie Goes to the Outback” and The French Lieutenant’s Woman was “Sophie Goes to France.” You get the idea.
I’m going to start doing that with Zac Efron films, except using the phrase, “Zac and His Bros”. That Awkward Moment is clearly “Zac and His Bros Try to Get Laid.” Neighbors is “Zac and His Bros Live in a Frathouse.” His latest, We are Your Friends, can be dubbed, “Zac and His Bros Do EDM.” Zac Efron may not be our foremost actor, but he is certainly our bro-most.
In a way, I get this. After coming up the ranks as a teen idol, it makes sense that Efron would want to show the world that he’s just a normal guy, the kind of guy who hangs out with his buddies, gets high, chases skirts, and parties hard. “Yes, I may be superhumanly handsome,” his films seem to say. “But I’m a regular guy, just like you!”
Efron is a natural and likeable presence on screen and has proven to be a pretty decent actor in films like Hairspray and The Paperboy. But the problem with “regularness” is that, in the wrong hands, it’s kind of dull. Which brings us to We Are Your Friends. The film, directed and co-written by Max Joseph, clearly sees itself as a kind of West Coast Saturday Night Fever, with disco replaced by EDM (Electronic Dance Music). But it’s so shallow, it actually feels more like EDM’s answer to Cocktail, that Tom Cruise vehicle about a brash young bartender learning the ropes from a wily mentor. At least young Tom Cruise always had that one distinguishing character trait—a cockiness that needed to be taken down a few pegs so he could become a better man. But Efron’s Cole Carter has no personality trait more distinguishing than, “Really, really wants to be a famous DJ.”
He’s living in the San Fernando Valley and has three best friends, who all seem like stock characters from other, better films. There’s his roommate Mason (Jonny Weston), the fiercely loyal, but hot-headed one. There’s Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), the would-be actor and ladies’ man. Then there’s “Squirrel” (Alex Shaffer), the diminutive sidekick who’s too good for this world.
The film’s style could best be described as “snapchat auteurism”: quick cuts, voice-overs, on-screen lettering, freeze frames, all in service of the loud, pulsating beat. Some of this works. There’s one great scene where Cole talks about how he works a club, slowly raising the BPM (beats per minute) to stimulate the crowd’s heart rates until they’re whipped into a frenzy. The film also has a surprisingly quirky sense of humor. The bros are obsessed with the fact that the Valley has the best sushi in the world—a point of pride, since the Valley is often seen as the slums of Beverly Hills. After a fight breaks out a party, Cole asks what started it. “Sushi,” Mason says with a shrug. Another semi-serious scene is amusingly undercut by the fact that Cole and his mentor James (Wes Bentley) have giant fistfuls of birthday cake that they’re shoveling into their mouths.
Cole’s big dream is to become a rich, famous, world-traveling EDM artist like James, who lives in a beautiful gated home with his beautiful girlfriend/assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). In a voice-over, Cole tells us that to become a famous DJ, all you need is “one great track.” But it’s James who explains to him that, even though EDM is computer-generated, it also needs to have something organic about it, it needs to speak to the DJ’s personal truth. That’s actually pretty good advice and James is, in fact, a great mentor to Cole—way better than he deserves, since Cole is constantly calling James a sell-out (“He used to be great,” he notes at one point, “now he just gives the people what they want”) and since, eventually, Cole starts sleeping with Sophie. (Man, with bros like that…)
In that sense, the film is fortunate to have Efron as its lead. As written, Cole isn’t really that likeable. He’s just a guy who wants things—and then expects to get them. But Efron’s innate charm and mesmerizing baby blues once again carry the film to the finish line. He’s just good enough here that I’m looking forward to the next one. Oh, the places he’ll bro…