Here are the titles from Shia LeBeouf’s mid-20teens oeuvre: Lawless (2012); Nymphomaniac (2013); Fury (2014); Man Down (2015). Sounds like he was trying to tell us something…
Maybe Shia was using his later roles to get the hotheads and assholes out of his system (he even played John McEnroe in 2016) but it obviously wasn’t working. His behavior on and off set was earning him a reputation as difficult and pretentious, and what with the fringe indie films and his personal ‘performance art’, he was getting to smell like Vincent Gallo. Time for a rethink.
So for 2019, instead of all his lawless fury, LeBeouf has given us peanut butter and honey, and I for one am eating it up.
The Peanut Butter Falcon sounds like a band name that Blind Melon rejected, but the movie is way better than that. Shia plays a po’ Carolina crabber with a secret Equinox membership and a bad habit of stealing crabs from other po’ but mean crabbers. On the run, he stumbles upon Zak, a young man with Down syndrome (Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome), also on the run after escaping an assisted care facility. Zak’s pursuer is Dakota Johnson, and the three end up on a Tom Sawyer adventure to get Zak to his dream, a pro wrestling training camp.
Yes, there are the plot points you’d expect as Shia’s self-destructive loner softens to the innocence of Zak and charms the girl who’s way out of his league but can’t resist his new tatted, Tom Hardy-ness (that might have been just me, #shialebuff). Sweet and earnest is not typical Shia territory of late, but his performance is solid and committed as always. He’s clearly getting a charge sharing the movie with an actor perceived as a misfit, on-screen and off. Maybe playing opposite Zack had Shia seeing his own grievances as petty compared to a young man trying to make an acting career in the face of actual hardship and public judgement.
Or maybe not. Toward the end of production on PBFalcon, Shia got in a bar fight with a townie and went into rehab.
While I’m sure he was petulantly rolling his eyes at 11 of the 12 Steps, Shia clearly embraced the ‘Apologize To Your Inner Child’ one. While in rehab he finally got the lead asshole – his father – out of his system, by writing the autobiographical screenplay for Honey Boy, and personally taking on the role of his pater assholius.
Shia LeBeouf playing his own dad opposite another actor playing Shia LeBeouf I guess was too meta even for Shia, so he changes everyone’s names. LeBeouf Sr is called James Lort (lort!), and Shia LeBeouf is called Otis Lort, played by Noah Jupe in the Even Stevens era and by Lucas Hedges as an adult. They’re both really good, especially Jupe, but Shia, playing someone he knows so intimately, can’t help but own the film, physically and emotionally.
If not for managing 12-year-old Otis/Shia’s work as a child actor, his failed performer of a father – who could be best described as a rodeo clown sans rodeo – would be completely untethered, yet the man refuses to squelch his resentment toward his son’s success. From day-to-day, Shia (I’m using the real names, goddammit) never knows if he’ll get the nasty clown or the sad clown or the clown telling him he has a small penis. While Shia’s dedication to his acting gives him a safe space, he’s still vulnerable to father worship, and mimics dad’s self-destructive behavior in an attempt to bond. LeBeouf the screenwriter couldn’t avoid the boy-seeking-dad’s-love trope – he is a child of Hollywood, after all – but the narrative is realistic in keeping LeBeouf Sr emotionally stunted and Shia practical about what he can ever expect from the man.
One thing you can’t say about Shia LeBeouf is that he was ever shitty in a movie, and there are many lauded actors who have turned in groaningly misguided performances. No matter how frivolous the vehicle, Shia has always immersed himself in his roles, finding the juiciest part of a character and making him alive in ways the script or director can’t. And Honey Boy shows he can do the same as a writer. In one telling scene, Otis/Shia is being arrested for drunken conduct. Instead of spouting the cliché “Do you know who I am?!”, he yells, “Do you know how good I am at what I do?!”, insisting that talent, not celebrity, is what deserves deference.
I can think of 2 or 3 high-profile films this year alone that would have been better served with LeBeouf in them, so let’s hope The Peanut Butter Falcon and Honey Boy get filmmakers sweet on him again, because god forbid the future of leading men is left in the emo arms of Timothee Chalamet and Robert Pattinson.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, and Honey Boy opens nationwide tomorrow, November 7.
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