Menus Subscribe Search
shia-labeouf

Shia LaBeouf. (PHOTO: FACEBOOK)

What Is Cool? Shia LaBeouf and the Almost Movie Star

• November 20, 2013 • 6:00 AM

Shia LaBeouf. (PHOTO: FACEBOOK)

Whatever Shia LaBeouf is, it’s not cool. At least not yet.

Many actors—I don’t know if you can say most, because “most actors” opens up a deep, dark corridor of this country’s soul—go through a period where they hover on the verge. What they hover on the verge of is hard to say; it’s probably best explained by citing people like Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, all the supreme examples of the cultural status that used to be “movie star” but is now something akin to being a head of state. It’s a position of cultural hegemony. (The dynamic with female actors is completely different and far more unfair, so we’ll save that for another time.)

If you’re a young actor with the alchemical blend of good looks, intriguing backstory, legitimate acting skill, emotional and intellectual depth, and ability to keep the paparazzi interested—all of these, surprisingly, are independent qualities—then there will come a point, particularly if you grab hold of or are gifted the lead role in a stupidly high-grossing franchise, where you begin to be considered as a possible “movie star.” This will precede a blitzkrieg of press and publicity, a full investigation of your backstory and romantic entanglements past and present, and probably cause you to do at least one incredibly stupid thing. Created by this scrum will be a figure maybe or maybe not reflective of who you are as a person, but it will become the defining image of you held by both the movie-going public and the moviemaking private, for better or for worse.

This is an important time for LaBeouf, who is 27 years old and possibly great, but seems to mostly have chosen, for his mature roles, ones that most directly contrasted with his childhood achievements.

WHETHER SHIA LABEOUF GOT the better or worse end of the ruler sort of depends on personal preference. LaBeouf, like many others, will always be significantly defined by the fact that people became familiar with him as a child at first; it doesn’t help that he was a particularly goofy child, albeit well-liked, as the star of hijinksy sitcom Even Stevens and outcast-kid paean Holes. After the maelstrom of positive and negative attention that began for LaBeouf about five years ago—beginning right around the time of the first Transformers film and the supremely unnecessary Indiana Jones 2008 edition, and not tailing off until the mildly unnecessary Wall Street sequel had come and quietly gone—LaBeouf had changed the way he existed in the public eye: he became a weird, grumpy, quarrelsome, young, old man who thought he was smarter than most people thought he was. Was he actually smarter than most people thought he was? It doesn’t really matter, because the work that he produced—those unnecessary couple films, the execrable Transformers movies, the quickly forgotten Lawless, and The Company You Keep, which falls into that awkward subcategory of prestige films that end up making about $5 million and going unheard of by apathetic ears—left no impression of any impressive intelligence. After looking at his slate of adult acting, it’s hard to think of LaBeouf as having arrived with even a quarter of the impact he was expected to—none of the films he’s made feel like any indication of what he can or cannot do.

That’s about to change. Charlie Countryman, an American-abroad, hyperstylized romance-thriller, came out last Friday, and Nymphomaniac, the latest from enfant terrible Lars Von Trier that tells the story of a young woman’s sexual awakening and supposedly features real, un-simulated sex, is in post-production. (Did I mention that it features real sex? The kind you see in porn? And occasionally in life? Because it does! Maybe! And Shia LaBeouf is in it! And though it appears that he doesn’t have real sex, other people do!) You probably haven’t heard of Charlie Countryman, and if you have heard of Nymphomaniac, it almost certainly stems from the macabre fascination that’s inevitable when the dude who just made Antichrist decides he’s going to tell the story of the sexual awakening of a woman and then Shia LaBeouf (maybe!) sends in a video of himself having sex with his girlfriend as his way of auditioning. But both should give us a decent chance to reevaluate a question: Is Shia LaBeouf cool?

In Charlie Countryman, LaBeouf looks to have a decent amount of acting to do: opposite Mads Mikkelsen, he has to carry a movie that requires him to somehow curry the audience’s favor as he clearly gets involved in all manner of ridiculous, ill-advised hijinkery in the name of young love. And his presence is striking; he has a stupid ponytail and a ridiculous wardrobe, and it all works for the same reason that so many idiots end up looking good in rags. Charisma is a ridiculous concept, and sometimes it requires a movie like this, one by a first-time director that flies completely under the radar, to truly be exhibited. LaBeouf seems right in Charlie Countryman; it seems right that he is in the film. If it fails, it will be of no particular issue; what failure would even mean for a movie of this small scale is ephemeral on the spectrum of a Shia LaBeouf, anyway. But it’s a reminder that his presence does have some level of significance. It can’t really hurt.

Nymphomaniac is different. Nymphomaniac is LaBeouf’s chance to finally be taken seriously. It won’t be his last chance, but it’s his best yet: the coupling with an auteur director, the unconventional subject matter, and the dark strangeness of it all line up with the time-tested showcase that big actors tend to seek out when they’re trying to make the leap. Brad Pitt has probably made 10 of these movies. (Fittingly, LaBeouf is also slated to star with Pitt in David Ayer’s tank movie, Fury.) If Nymphomaniac is a disaster—more importantly, if LaBeouf is a disaster; if he’s a seething, slimy, uncouth pervert—it will set him back years in his quest to become a person taken seriously. If it works, and if he is a sensually compelling, narratively attractive character—if the audience doesn’t feel like LaBeouf took this role so he could appear to be having sex in front of strangers—then he’ll be in good shape. This is an important time for LaBeouf, who is 27 years old and possibly great, but seems to mostly have chosen, for his mature roles, ones that most directly contrasted with his childhood achievements. But there’s a reason Brad Pitt is the only Brad Pitt.

Kevin Lincoln
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a writer living in Los Angeles. He also contributes to The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Grantland.

More From Kevin Lincoln

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can score success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.