question of the day: Can Shia LaBeouf be saved?

If there’s one commonality I’ve heard in the reactions to Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps from my fellow critics I’ve actually spoken to about the film, it’s along these lines: “The movie was so great, except when Shia LaBeouf was onscreen. Why did he get more screen time than Michael Douglas?” or “Oh, man, it sucked so hard, and Shia LaBeouf was awful.”

I’m clearly in a minority here: I like LaBeouf, and I think he’s terrific in Wall Street, in his first really grownup role in a grownup film. And without the distractions of giant space robots and ancient crystal skulls, we’re able to see — as we did way back in Holes — that he’s got that Movie Star It that is its own human-scaled special effect.

That said… It was hard not to wonder, before I saw the film, if Wall Street 2 was going to feature giant space robots attacking the New York Stock Exchange or a bullwhip-wielding archaeologist to inform Gordon Gekko that he “belongs in a museum.” Just by sheer dint of LaBeouf’s presence. I’m not saying this was a fair thing for me to think, but Hollywood is the one who put style over substance and instant gut reactions over intellect, not me. And Shia LaBeouf has put himself, in recent years, in a place where the Shia LaBeouf Experience is one of big loud dumb noises in which he runs around yelling. A lot. This is what Hollywood has trained us to accept from LaBeouf, and it’s not exactly the best place for a serious actor to find himself. Not if he wants to be taken seriously.
It wouldn’t matter if LaBeouf were just another piece of Hollywood meat, ready fodder for stupid action movies. But he isn’t… or he shouldn’t want to be. I used to call him the next John Cusack, though that was before the horror that was Hot Tub Time Machine. After LaBeouf’s captivating performance as Stanley Yelnats VI in the utterly charming Holes, when he was all of 13, I was sure that LaBeouf was on track to be the next appealing young romantic comedy hero: the word adorkable could have been invented for him. And then he avoided the usual high-school-comedy tripe in his later teens, taking on instead funky character roles in big Hollywood movies such as Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Constantine, and I, Robot.

But then LaBeouf went in for big dumb loudness in the Transformers movies and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (See also: Eagle Eye.) And Transformers 3 is shooting now, and looms on the LaBeouf horizon. I fear that Wall Street 2 was just an anomalous blip in a career on track for total irrelevance.

Can Shia LaBeouf be saved? If so, how?

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