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‘We Are Your Friends’: DJ story samples good, bad from movies past

Talk about a mediocre mash-up.

Much of “We Are Your Friends” plays like an Electronic Dance Music update of a very good John Travolta movie — “Saturday Night Fever” — with a liberal sprinkling of plot elements from a quite terrible Tom Cruise movie called “Cocktail.”

Zac Efron, who always looks so shiny and buff on screen (Seth Rogen once said, “I marvel at the fact we’re literally the same species”), turns in his usual capable if not particularly riveting performance as our hero, a 23-year-old aspiring DJ named Cole who dreams of making it big in Hollywood.

“All you need is a laptop, some talent and one track,” says Cole — an assessment I’m guessing wouldn’t sit well with the likes of Skrillex and other superstar DJ’s who can fill arenas around the globe with their talent for mixing music magic.

Director and co-writer Max Joseph brings a kind of DJ sensibility to his approach, having fun with the material and injecting animation and graphics and other zippy touches into certain scenes, i.e., when Cole explains how his goal as a DJ is to get your heart racing at 128 BPM (Beats Per Minute), at which point you’ll be under his spell and you’ll dance until you pass out or some such thing. (On the heels of the exhilarating creative passages in the Brian Wilson film “Love & Mercy” and the N.W.A. movie “Straight Outta Compton,” this is pretty silly and superficial stuff.)

RELATED: Zac Efron worked hard to be convincing as a DJ

Just as John Travolta’s Tony Manero in “Fever” hung around with a scrappy, ragtag bunch of childhood friends, Cole is tight with his crew of scrappy, ragtag childhood friends. (Tony’s group included the diminutive and troubled Bobby C. Cole’s group includes the diminutive and troubled Squirrel.)

Tony and the boys spent their days hustling for money and chasing girls and dreaming of a better life. But for one night every week, Tony was a star on the dance floor and his pals basked in his glory.

Cole and the boys spend their days hustling for money and chasing girls and dreaming of a better life. But for one night every week, Cole is a star on the DJ platform and his pals bask in his glory.

Enter the “Cocktail” phase of the story!

In that 1988 minor camp classic, Bryan Brown’s Coughlin is a veteran bartender and hard-partying man of the world who takes young Flanagan (Tom Cruise) under his wing and teaches him the tricks of the trade. Coughlin’s beautiful girlfriend (Kelly Lynch) eventually has a thing for young Flanagan.

In “We Are Your Friends,” Wes Bentley’s James is a veteran DJ and hard-partying man of the world who takes young Cole under his wing and teaches him the tricks of the trade. James’ beautiful girlfriend (Emily Ratajkowski) eventually has a thing for Cole.

Emily Ratajkowski in “We Are Your Friends.” | Warner Bros.
Emily Ratajkowski in “We Are Your Friends.” | Warner Bros.

“We Are Your Friends” earns its R rating for generous heapings of casual drug use, female nudity, language and sex — but it still feels like a lightweight take on the EDM culture. Nearly all of the successful and/or ambitious people in this movie are good-looking white men, while the women are dancers and party girls and personal assistants and sexual predators.

The most substantial female role goes to Emily Ratajkowski, who sprang to fame based on that “Blurred Lines” video. Ms. Ratajkowski had a small role in “Gone Girl,” played herself in the “Entourage” movie and is front and center here as Cole’s love interest. To date, there is no substantial evidence of any real acting talent. Efron isn’t exactly Ryan Gosling when it comes to having the chops, but he’s a comfortable presence onscreen. The same cannot be said of his co-star.

Jon Bernthal (“Fury,” “The Walking Dead”) livens things up as a barracuda who hires the boys to cold-call homeowners who are underwater with their mortgages and take advantage of their plight. Bentley does fine work playing the needlessly mopey James, who has worldwide fame, an insanely fabulous house and a gorgeous girlfriend, but can barely get out of bed in the morning because he’s become a sellout.

The music is what the music is — well suited to the dance floor at 2 a.m., but not particularly memorable as a movie soundtrack (as opposed to “Saturday Night Fever” and those iconic cuts from the Bee Gees). The buildup to Cole’s One Big Shot at Stardom is simplistic and kinda goofy.

“We Are Your Friends” is one of the worst titles of the year, and the trailer was just awful. The actual product is a step up, squarely in land of Below Average.

[s3r star=2/4]

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Max Joseph and written by Joseph and Meaghan Oppenheimer. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated R (for language throughout, drug use, sexual content and some nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.