Being successful sure is nice, but what everybody really wants is to be taken seriously. Whether it's Woody Allen following up Annie Hall with the dour Interiors, George Michael turning away from the pop stardom of Faith for the confessional Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, or Robin Williams deciding that making people cry was more important than making people laugh, some artists at the top of their game suddenly get this belief that they're wasting their gift by not doing something more creatively significant in the world. It's an understandable impulse—nobody wants to be pigeonholed as "just" an entertainer—but it's interesting that this transition very often has less to do with "graduating" to serious art than it does with playing the part of a Serious Artist, which isn't necessarily the same thing as being a serious artist.
For a couple years now, Shia LaBeouf has been going through that "please take me seriously" phase of his career. In some ways, it's right on schedule. At age 26, he's been the star of four major blockbusters (three Transformers films and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) since 2007, and then for good measure he's been the lead in two other solid hits (Disturbia and Eagle Eye). But for all his fame, he seems very unhappy. Apparently, he had no idea how bad stardom was going to be. And now he wants you to think of him as a serious actor. Maybe someday we'll look back at this period and realize that it was the beginning of his transformation into a celebrated, Oscar-winning thespian. In the meantime, though, it sure is awkward.
On Wednesday, LaBeouf will be costarring in Lawless, a dark, violent Prohibition-era drama directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) and featuring Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, and Guy Pearce. Lawless isn't meant to be a fun crowd-pleaser: It's a brutal, remorseless indie that premiered at Cannes and is eyeing end-of-the-year awards. And LaBeouf is here to tell you that this is the type of movie he's going to make now. "I'm done," he said recently about working on studio films. "There's no room for being a visionary in the studio system. It literally cannot exist. You give Terrence Malick a movie like Transformers, and he's f—-ed. There's no way for him to exist in that world."
While you pause for a moment to consider a reality in which a studio would ever give Malick a Transformers movie—much less one in which he'd be interested in doing it—it's noteworthy that LaBeouf uses as his example the current king of indie, experimental, artistically driven films. Screw those Transfomers movies that LaBeouf was in, man: He's down with Malick. The actor may be in his mid-20s, but he sounds a bit like an undergraduate who's just discovered On the Road and won't shut up about deep it is.
The acting-out continued with LaBeouf, in the same interview, saying the following about the indie company that financed Lawless and his forthcoming The Company You Keep: "They give you the money, and they trust you—[unlike the studios, which] give you the money, then get on a plane and come to the set and stick a finger up your ass and chase you around for five months." If you needed further proof that LaBeouf is a Genuine Artist now, he also revealed he's on the outs with his mentor Steven Spielberg for his acknowledgment that Crystal Skull was terrible: "He told me there's a time to be a human being and have an opinion, and there's a time to sell cars," LaBeouf said. "It brought me freedom, but it also killed my spirits because this was a dude I looked up to like a sensei." (And don't get LaBeouf started on his Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps director Oliver Stone.)
It's not that LaBeouf should shut up and just sell cars. (And he is right: Crystal Skull is awful—and so are the Transformers movies.) But his desperate striving for artistic credibility isn't much better. He's actually fine in Lawless, playing the inexperienced younger brother in a Virginia bootlegging clan who wants to earn the respect of older brother Tom Hardy, but it's not a performance that will instantly change your impression of Shia LaBeouf, Movie Star. But like everything he's done recently, Lawless feels like a self-conscious attempt to grab those "serious" bona fides. Last year, he directed a 10-minute short, Maniac, about a camera crew following a pair of serial killers, that's based on a Kid Cudi song. Again, it's fine, but it's the sort of "dark" and "edgy" short you make when you're feeling very, very guilty about your popular success:
Since then, he's worked on a predictably shocking Marilyn Manson video and a short film about movie critics starring Jim Gaffigan (which I haven't seen yet). But the big news is that he's also going to be in Lars von Trier's next film, Nymphomaniac, which LaBeouf promises will feature unsimulated sex. This apparently won't be a big deal for LaBeouf since he recently starred in a music video for Sigur Ros in which he (and his female costar) were completely naked:
Thus far, the LaBeouf Bid For Seriousness Project has mostly consisted of works heavy in violence, sex, or nudity. They're often outwardly "heavy" and "deep" without actually being either. And none of them is particularly terrific. And in the end, that's all that matters—is this stuff any good? Nobody cares if Woody Allen makes a Match Point, or if Jim Carrey does a Truman Show, or if your favorite sitcom star decides to do Broadway so long as that thing they make is great. (Twilight star Robert Pattinson has faced a similar problem to LaBeouf, but after his work in Cosmopolis, he's proved he has the chops to want more out of life than being just a pinup.) But if that thing isn't great, the audience wonders why the star is wasting everyone's time.
That's where LaBeouf is right now. It's not like he can't act. He received good reviews for the drama A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and he's actually quite good in Disturbia, which was a great platform for his adorable-nerd persona that was then trashed in all those Transformers monstrosities. To this point, his strength has been his likeable youthful awkwardness, his regular-kid charm. Now he wants to be treated like a grownup, a savvy industry veteran who's seen the dark side of Hollywood and wants to change his ways. More power to him. But being a mature artist is about more than making short films about serial killers (that aren't nearly as good as Man Bites Dog) and bad-mouthing Spielberg because sometimes the director of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan just wants to "sell cars." It's about producing quality work that stirs an audience's heart and soul—you know, the hard stuff. Maybe LaBeouf will get there. But right now he's trying so hard to be serious that it's impossible to take him seriously at all.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.