“Are we ever going to be better than this?” We Are Your Friends

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Someday Hollywood will figure out what to do with Zac Efron. He’s had success  – obviously (High School Musical, Neighbors) – but he always seems to be nipping at the edges of super-stardom. A baby John Travolta or Tom Cruise, trapped in amber, all smoky pout, wounded charm, and barracuda ambition, but with nowhere terribly great to channel it. Heaven help us if he discovers Scientology.

Sadly, We Are Your Friends, his latest gambit to cement leading man status has been dead-on-arrival at the box office and is now pegged as a dismal and historic failure.

And that’s a shame because the movie ain’t half bad.

It’s a bit of a paint-by-numbers affair, cribbing from so many “lost in the valley” (literal and figurative) films depicting an aspiring hustler from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make good by lurking around the darker side-alleys of pop culture, nightlife, and fame – see: Saturday Night Fever, Boogie Nights, 8Mile, Swingers, Magic Mike, Step Up (hell, 75% of Channing Tatum‘s filmography-to-date, qualifies in fact).

In the case of We Are Your Friends, titled after the mid-aughts EDM hit by Justice vs. Simian, Efron and his collaborators, including director and co-screenwriter Max Joseph (Catfish), attempt to capitalize on the white-hot ascension of Southern California DJ-culture and said EDM (that would be “electronic dance music” to us fogies who used to call it, say, house or acid or techno or disco or … er … dance music).

With a healthy expectation for audience members to suspend our disbelief, former Disney star Efron plays a scruffy San Fernando Valley ne’er-do-well whose days (and nights) are spent in a drug-addled, thumping-bass haze as he and his pals bounce from club to couch to club again. The script is an under-baked affair, wisely relying on Efron’s charisma (which he has in spades) to fill in the (many) gaps where a bit of character-development might have saved the day.

Efron’s character Cole Carter (yeah, that name – trying a bit too hard for Cali cool guy chic, if you ask me) is an aspiring musician/producer/DJ with little direction and even fewer resources. In the kind of happenstance collision that only occurs in movies like this, Cole shares a cigarette with – and therefore befriends – world-class DJ (and jerk) James Reed (engagingly played by a glowering Wes Bentley, looking like Chris Evans’ sozzled, emaciated twin).

James gives Cole some superficial tutelage (the EDM Obi-Wan Kenobi version of “write what you know” … which is “grab some weird sounds on your iPhone that you hear around your house and put them in a song”). During a drunken night in Vegas, Cole steals James’ girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski of Gone Girl and Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” video – oy.); James and Cole have an awkwardly staged fight in a bathroom stall; they stop speaking. Cole, consequently, loses a gig that would change his life; James and Cole make up; Cole finally takes his mentor’s advice and “hears the world”; they make up again. Cole performs said gig in front of an American Apparel warehouse (!), offering a hypnotically existential “let’s recap everything you just saw with some flashbacks, looped beats, and smoldering glances from Mr. Efron” denouement, and all is right with the world, when Cole and Sophie reunite over pie at a vegan cafe where she is now waitressing. Whew. Try that with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland!

Efron almost single-handedly keeps the proceedings from running off the rails into soap opera schmaltz. His beautiful loser gravitas gave Neighbors some much needed spice; and the same is true for We Are Your Friends. He is aided and abetted by an appealing group of misfits that trail around behind him. Shiloh Ferndandez, Alex Shaffer, and Jonny Weston play Cole’s bedraggled Valley Boys, as if Entourage were filmed in a Salvation Army somewhere.

After a third-act tragedy strikes this merry band of get-rich-quick schemers, the young thespians do some of their best work in the flick. It’s not their fault that we’ve seen this coming-of-age-in-postmodern-sprawl a million times now and that it was already tired the first time Steven Soderbergh visited this dusty cinematic strip mall. I just wish these actors had a more-focused script with which to work, one that spent time developing the interpersonal dynamic beyond the dreamer/hothead/nerd/gigolo cyphers the actors are given to play.

We Are Your Friends benefits from a game cast and a director (this is Max Joseph’s feature debut) who has a reasonably solid handle on pacing and visuals. (Joseph seems to be a Fight Club/David Fincher junkie as he has a lot of clever fun – nearly careening into self-indulgence – with rotoscoped animation, title cards, and subtitles.) Unfortunately, the script isn’t quite up-to-snuff, and a tighter job in editing would have likely helped as well.

At one point in the film, Cole’s buddy Squirrel (as played by Alex Shaffer) asks, “Are we ever going to be better than this?” – a query which becomes a clarion call for the misbegotten generation depicted in the film. And this same question might be asked of Efron’s sputtering movie career, full as it is of such unrealized promise. Time will tell.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Can’t get no respect: Robin Thicke at Detroit’s Fox Theatre

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Unfortunately for Robin Thicke, the son of Hollywood b-listers Alan Thicke and Gloria Loring, he is often seen as the poor man’s Justin Timberlake. He is actually as talented if not more so than JT. But none of us will ever know that, for he has been labeled a skeezy player by most of the major media.

I have enjoyed his music for about 10 or more years now, since he first came on the scene with his Fifth of Beethoven knock-off “When I Get You Alone” still rocking his dreadlocks and a skateboard. Since that time, he has graduated to three-piece suits and a full orchestra backing him up, though for us old fans in the group, he still plays that original hit … sans skateboard.

[Photo by Author]

I saw him at the Fox Theatre  in Detroit, and he was a fantastic throwback to an earlier, Motown-infused era. He proved himself a marvelous multi-hyphenate musician, and he graciously acknowledged his backup band much earlier in the set than anyone I have ever seen, including digital placards of every musician who supported him. It was the epitome of a “jam session” – a notion which usually leaves me cold, but his sheer joy sold it all.

Yes, he ended the show with the uber-popular “Blurred Lines “– a song that apparently has both Camille Paglia and Gloria Steinem in apoplexy. I’m not sure it’s any more offensive than anything else on the radio these days and it’s infinitely more catchy … Marvin Gaye’s family’s lawsuit notwithstanding.

Let me add, though, that I find the video problematic myself. I am not an apologist for Mr. Thicke. I don’t know if “Blurred Lines” director Diane Martel was co-opting the insane imagery of hip-hop videos to make a satirical statement, to be provocative, or to be exploitative. I have been unclear from my first viewing of it. And some days I think Thicke shot himself in the proverbial foot with this clip. Yet, he also had a hit song because of it, as he had bubbled under for over a decade with few people paying attention to his musical talent.

I suspect he feels this conflict too since the live show had very little of that dubious (gross? misogynistic?) iconography, save the occasional Bond girl silhouette on a rear projection screen. It is a sad indictment of our culture that these kind of stunts are required to get anyone to pay attention. A Faustian bargain to be sure.

IMG_0619The live show was an absolute delight, filled with exceptional craft and an infectious love for Detroit. Thicke, who seems to hail from somewhere left of Malibu, knows his audience and definitely can work a crowd, cannily including covers of hits from Michael Jackson and Al Green. He proved himself an exceptional presence, while lacking a bit of Timberlake’s joie de vivre. Regardless, he held the audience enrapt for a lean and efficient 90 minute set. His opening act, DJ Cassidy offered a wonderful range of current and vintage disco and R&B that meshed nicely with Thicke’s set.

While most of the world has decided they don’t like Robin Thicke for some inexplicable reason, his talent is unimpeachable. If he swaggers his way to a venue near you, I urge you to give his show a shot. He is very talented Hollywood progeny who deserves more respect than he tends to get.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events! In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.