Oh, Shia. It seems that everytime I open my computer to check on the doings of the movie world, that name pops up. Usually in connection to saying something remarkably douchie and/or delusional. Shia, who supposedly sent in a sex tape to get a part in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Shia, who dropped acid for his performance in The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman (It was, according to Mr. LaBeouf, ‘too real’ for the director). Shia, who insists that he’s gonna totally actually bang that chick, live, for art. I wonder if Charlotte Gainsbourg will have anything to say about that. Shia, Shia, Shia.
It’s easy to lambast someone named Shia LaBeouf. But who can blame the poor fellow? He started his career as a Disney Channel mainstay, graduated to become the least annoying character in the 62 Transformers films, the most annoying character in the worst Indiana Jones film, and finally the least convincing badass in the storied history of unconvincing-badassery, narrowly beating out Ryan Gosling. Of course he wants to reinvent himself, to distance himself from those fuzzy/stupid/painful roles of yesteryear. But is he going about it the right way?
Well, I would say: no. Appearing in a Lars von Trier film? Fine. Informing the world that you got the part by having sex with your girlfriend and then filming it? Bad idea. Attempting to be a badass Virginian moonshiner? Great. Holding your badass guns like fairies magically bestowed them upon you 2.5 seconds before the picture was taken? Not so much. Doing ‘Method-style’ preparation for a film role? Awesome. Comparing yourself to Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking? Dude, get some perspective.
Dear little Shia is doing what so many actors before him have done: he’s throwing off his light roles and going for something weirder, darker, more serious. Consider the selfsame Sean Penn, who got his start as a dumb surfer dude in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Watching that film, there’s very little to indicate that he will soon be compared to Jack Nicholson, that he will marry Madonna, that he will eventually become a respected actor and director. The same can be said for Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr, and John Cusack. All well-respected actors, although Depp is trying very hard to fall in our estimations. All began their careers as Brat Packers or teen heartthrobs. They worked very hard to transform into the actors that they are today.
But notice how they did it. Depp consciously pursued strange and outlandish roles, roles that manipulated his pretty looks into something darker. He also found a director who, for good or ill, was able and willing to look at him as an actor and not as a heartthrob. Cusack slowly morphed: in 1989, he was in Say Anything. A mere two years later, he was appearing in Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog. He was willing to be a bit player; he didn’t try to become a badass in one sitting. By 1997, he’s in Grosse Pointe Blank and the rest is history. It took Penn more than 10 years to get from Ridgemont High to Dead Man Walking. Robert Downey Jr. was a mainstay in romantic comedies until he did Chaplin. These were not guys who transformed over night, who jumped straight from being charming but not terribly serious actors to Oscar nods. They worked hard. They made films with directors like Richard Attenborough, Woody Allen, and Robert Altman. They became friends with Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. They reinvented, yes, but they also trained. They became actors.
Every actor emulates his or her heroes. Johnny Depp imitated Marlon Brando. Sean Penn imitated Jack Nicholson. But it took them awhile to get from imitation to performing on their own. They had natural talent to begin with, and they worked hard – including taking some very non-glamourous and often not terribly lucrative roles. Imitating someone does not make you ‘just like Jack Nicholson’. Jack Nicholson didn’t try to be Jack Nicholson: he WAS Jack Nicholson. Nowadays Sean Penn is not a Jack Nicholson wannabe; he’s Sean Penn.
LaBeouf seems to believe that dropping acid because his character does makes him Method. That because Sean Penn strapped himself to a chair or Michael Fassbender starved himself for a part, that’s all that LaBeouf has to do in order to give performances like them. LaBeouf already pretended to be Brando by putting on a hat and jumping on a motorcycle. And he looked like an idiot. Not because he wanted to be like Brando, but because he so obviously wasn’t Brando.
Dear little Shia is just trying too hard. He’s talking too much and he comes off as a (pardon me) unconscionable douchebag. Rather than just being an actor and doing his parts, he has to explain how amazing he is, how edgy he is, how contemptible he finds his previous roles. No, Shia, no one believes that you thought Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a piece of shite from beginning to end. You knew what you were doing, and it might be considered a crime against humanity.
I want to say that LaBeouf will never be the actor that he thinks he is. But that’s not very fair. Maybe he can do what he’s set out to do. Maybe, given enough time and perhaps the right director, he can actually morph into a truly great actor. Maybe someday we’ll be talking about that great actor Shia LaBeouf not as the kid from the Transformers films, but as the guy who became great despite playing second fiddle to Megan Fox’s boobs. He needs to stop trying be the worst version of Sean Penn ever and start trying to be the best Shia LaBeouf ever. That in itself will be quite a performance.