In We Are Your Friends, Zac Efron is Cole Carter, a possibly ascendant DJ from Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. Cole narrates this movie, wears perfectly tailored T-shirts to gigs, gets high with his three best bros — Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez, and Alex Shaffer — and promotes Thursday-night parties on the campuses of colleges he never bothered applying to. His dream is dance-party respectability. An encounter with an established, in-demand, but creatively over-the-hill DJ named James Reed (Wes Bentley) gets Cole an inch closer. But there are obstacles. He doesn’t have a banging track. His friends are numbskulls. He’s taken a lucrative, time-consuming job doing cold calls for a greasy real estate shark (Jon Bernthal). And he’s really into James’s expensively attired girlfriend and personal assistant, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), who has made a curious exit from Stanford and cries poverty when asked about returning. To which, all one can say is, “Girl, sell an outfit.”
The cowriter and director is Max Joseph, a commercial director involved with MTV’s Catfish. This is his first film, and it always seems ready to take you somewhere — not so much inside the world of electronic dance music (that’s just America now) but inside the world of a kid who would dominate it. But the movie doesn’t go that far. We know merely that Cole is good and competent. At an outdoor dance party James hosts at his standard-issue, hillside, glass-and-marble bungalow, Cole teaches Sophie about how a good dance track makes your body move. He speaks this as both gospel truth and biorhythmic science. The filmmaking backs him up with stock footage of anatomical cartoons, different castes of partiers dancing to corresponding styles of music, and the sight of Ratajkowski, seduced, resuming swivel-and-writhe duties from her stint in the “Blurred Lines” video. It sounds dopey, but a movie like this needs a moment like that.
Of course, the entire time you’re watching you understand why the history of movies is loaded with tales of dancers and next to none about the architects of the dance. In the wrong hands, it’s anti-cinematic. Cole has to talk us through his art, which could be interesting since people will want to hear the magic formula. This is true, too, for the couple of scenes in which James and Cole talk about what makes a successful EDM hit. They speak in some detail and meet holding differing ideas of what those ingredients are and from where they should come. The movie sides with James’s preference for live instruments and natural sounds. Calling the character James aligns him, if not artistically then spiritually, with another James — James Murphy, the man behind LCD Soundsystem. While the title is the same as Justice vs. Simian’s nine-year-old hit, that song is much stronger than most of what’s actually in the movie.
In any case, once you hear these two talking about how to make tracks, you have to spend the rest of the movie waiting for the music Cole’s made. And here’s the thing about that moment: It’s terrible. Cole takes the stage with his laptop before a sea of wristbands, candy-colored Ray-Bans, and tank tops, and plays his track, which culminates with the question: “Are we gonna be better than this?” The crowd goes nuts. But it’s been shot so that you can’t tell what impact the song actually had on these people. What, really, are they reacting to?
That moment is risible in a way that’s rare for these from-toil-to-triumph movies, whether it’s about the welder who exotic-dances on the side or the exotic-dancer who wants to weld. Because after all that talk, you’re not convinced Cole is better than anybody. Contrast this with a video that appeared on the New York Times’s site this week, in which Justin Bieber and the producers Skrillex and Diplo walk you through the creation of their summer jam “Where Are Ü Now.” It ends with a performance of the song in which an understanding of how the sausage is made enhances the taste of the meal. It doesn’t make me like the song any more, but I learned something. I respect the process.
We Are Your Friends is a process musical like Center Stage, Step Up, or Magic Mike. But it also takes swings at being generational. The house where Cole stays with his friend Mason (Weston) looks like the one in The Graduate, except the pool is empty, which is a metaphor the movie can’t do much with. There’s talk among these guys of wanting more, like becoming the dudes who start the next Instagram, but how, with what idea and whose magic capital? They stand there collected above the city, at a loss over their respective futures. This moment is almost persuasive. Were Joseph and cowriter Meaghan Oppenheimer to connect the dishonest real estate work of Bernthal (basically redoing the goon he played in The Wolf of Wall Street) and Cole’s drive to make art instead, the movie would be up to something dangerous. But it’s hard to make even a smartish movie about the young, clueless, and stoned. When a character bites the dust at a party, it’s a nauseating reach, like watching Good Will Hunting cop a feel on Kids.
It’s so much easier to let the yammering that Cole does with James and with Sophie dominate the proceedings, and to stuff the moral and social commentary into a clever but cheap one-shot coda that comes during the closing credits. This is the second botched tale this month of young and restless Southern Californians desperate to make art. Straight Outta Compton refused to survey the crater that N.W.A’s music made in American culture and the bruises its members left on other people’s lives. It’s a generic fairy tale of Making It. The stakes couldn’t be lower. We Are Your Friends is a silly movie that’s, like, two butt scratches away from articulating something. But it’s afraid of being weird or gross or smart about sex or music or dancing or venality. It’s as if a Michael Lewis story or a 1980s Paul Schrader movie were intercepted by studio marketing execs who said, “You should turn Saturday Night Fever into a commercial for SunnyD.”
This leaves us with Efron. You can tell he’s not a star, because he’d have rescued this movie’s shortcomings with charisma. We’re not talking Jerry Maguire here, but at the very least: Cocktail. And I’m worried that there’s no Cocktail in Efron. (Cole, by the way, is such a Tom Cruise name.) Efron is like toy dynamite. This fuse has been going for years, but where’s the bang? You can feel Hollywood wondering the same thing. The stature of his movies keeps shrinking — and it was never that strong to start with. But every time he shows up in something, it’s as if some economy of fame is determined to make him come true. He’s too hot to fail. There have been moments — whenever he was with Macy Gray in The Paperboy, or competing for laughs with Seth Rogen and Dave Franco in Neighbors. And there’s something in the sharp angles of his face, but that’s geometry, not stardom. Whatever’s special about him has to do with an energy that almost never gets tapped. Efron is known for Disney musicals, not for Juilliard. Let the man move.
But when he does here, the whole thing falls apart. Cole and Sophie wind up in Vegas together and run off into a montage of sexy-dancing set to a Gryffin remix of “Desire” by Years & Years. If someone put a pencil in my mouth and asked me to draw a beautiful woman, Ratajkowski is what I’d come up with. She’s no actress, not yet. But the sequence in which she and Efron gyrate with each other and fall into bed is the one in which they make the most sense together. Only their bodies are talking. And Efron’s body — shirted and otherwise — is articulate. It just doesn’t have the comedy and erotic theatricality of Channing Tatum’s or the solar force of John Travolta’s.
It’s not sex that comes off of him in Vegas, simply fun. After you see him do that with Ratajkowski, you really don’t want to see him standing in front of electronic equipment, turning knobs. It’s like a football movie putting Rob Gronkowski in a booth next to Joe Buck. If Efron wants to prove himself as a dramatic performer, fine. But throw us a pelvic thrust, too. It feels illegal having him sit around like this being all existential and world-is-sad. He’s just not that kind of actor right now. It’s not emotion we want from him, just motion. And over and over, the judgment is the same: motion denied.
Z for Zachariah is a sex movie with a science-fiction coating and barely any sex. It’s set in Appalachia, after some apocalyptic event has left Small Town, USA, looking as if aliens have bombed the sets of a Gregory Crewdson photo shoot. Trudging out of the rubble and decay, pushing a wheelbarrow full of supplies to higher ground, is a figure, who, when she peels off her hazmat suit, is revealed to be Margot Robbie. Robbie’s playing Ann, a good, god-fearing mountain woman who lives alone in a handsome farmhouse on a fertile plot of land. Ann and her dog discover a fellow survivor, who peels off his suit (it’s much fancier) apparently for the first time in a while. He’s played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who, as John Loomis, lets out a tearful, ecstatic howl, and makes his way toward a spring. Ann rushes down to tell him it’s contaminated. But she’s too late and winds up dragging John back to the farm and nursing him back to health and eventually to horniness.
He intimates that he’d like to repopulate the area with her. He’s a scientist, one that Ejiofor plays with an alluring mix of pragmatism and romance. John knows Ann is a woman of the Bible (he can see the cross she keeps around her neck and the Christian T-shirt she usually wears) and that she’s also a farmer. For any number of reasons, his proposal should appeal to her. He tries talking her into using the wood of her late father’s church to build a rig to power the farm with the spring’s radioactive water, but stops short of pressuring her.
You’re not sure what to make of this movie or where it’s going. There’s a lot of the “I used to do this”/“Things were once like that” dialogue that you tend to get in movies and shows set in cataclysm’s wake. If you’ve seen the ads, all you know is that this movie’s been on for 40 minutes and Chris Pine (Caleb) still hasn’t shown up. Eventually he does, and brings some tension along with him. He’s a miner — a non-radioactively hot one, too. (Pine’s script must have been typed in pheromones.) What happens among these three is surprisingly unsurprising. The men want the woman, though not each other. And the woman wants to keep the peace.
Craig Zobel directed from a script by Nissar Modi. The movie claims to have been adapted from Robert C. O’Brien’s strange, awkward young-adult novel, but all Modi appears to have taken is the title, about which you’re free to speculate if you’re so inclined. John glances at the many titles in Ann’s library, choosing to flip through a children’s book called A is for Adam. He’s shown studying John Deere farm equipment manuals, so why would he pick that up? It’s the pseudo-biblical math problem that the movie tries to dramatize: Who’s the snake in this garden? That loosely keeps with the conundrums in Zobel’s other two movies, the truly wonderful talent-scout-scam comedy Great World of Sound and Compliance, an abominable sick-joke personality test of a movie that I’m certain I failed.
Z for Zachariah has the tasteful dullness of a movie too afraid to make a choice in any direction. When John, who’s black, tells Ann, about Caleb, “Y’all be white people together,” the movie is so unprepared to deal with John’s insecurity that you almost think they might be better off without him. Ejiofor gives the line so much hurt that he snatches a little empathy from you. Some of us have been there. But judging from the shock on Robbie’s face, some others have been there, too. But it plays poorly after this week’s shooting of the reporter in Roanoke and her cameraman and interview subject. The white journalists were killed by a vividly troubled former colleague, who, among things, blamed racism for his motive.
That line blows a hole in the movie that goes unprocessed. A few scenes and the credits are rolling. But John’s command does push the film further into the old science-fiction, doomsday territory of films like Five; The World, the Flesh and the Devil; and Night of the Living Dead, where the only way in the world the races could commingle was at its end. This movie doesn’t know what to do with racism or isolation or attraction or even possible murder. Zobel’s been aces with amateurs and character actors. This is his first film with stars. And he’s afraid of asking them to commit ugliness the way he previously had. The filmmaking seemed cowed by the talent. Little of what we see constitutes enough of a parable to support a conversation in the lobby afterward. I loathed Compliance, but there Zobel was using the tools of the suspense thriller to melt you down. The movie was daring me to hate it. Here, the lone cinematic tool at his disposal is what can only be called “Merchant-Ivory.” He’s using it as soap.