Shia LaBeouf is the next Tom Hanks. Or so it hath been officially decreed by the frothing, groaning, don’t-stop-us-now-we’re-on-a-roll Hollywood hype machine that’s been building buzz for the 21-year-old actor over the past few months. The surprise box office topper Disturbia, the Saturday Night Live hosting gig, the big-ass Michael Bay blockbuster, the Steven Spielberg seal of approval—it all culminated this month with a glossy Vanity Fair cover featuring Mr. LaBeouf in a space suit and the inevitable headline: “Landing In Hollywood.”
The LaBoeuf as Hanks-come-lately doesn’t quite work, however, once you look beyond the (ho-hum) comparison of both actors’ “quirky charms.” Mr. Hanks, remember, spent the majority of his 20’s on the hustle for work. The early 1980s are littered with small TV appearances on such highbrow fare as The Love Boat, Taxi, Happy Days, Family Ties and the short-lived (but brilliant, actually) sitcom Bosom Buddies before making, um, a splash in a little movie about the love between man and mermaid at the tender age of 27. It would be almost another decade—including years of fun clunkers like Joe Versus the Volcano, Turner and Hooch, and Bonfire of the Vanities—before Mr. Hanks would turn in his Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia. Mr. LaBeouf, meanwhile, started acting at age 12 (his stand-up act began when he was 10), landed a Disney Channel show at 13, and was costarring with Will Smith in I, Robot by 2004.
But all this matters not one whit. Though Mr. LaBeouf himself told Vanity Fair that he’s compared to “any dark-haired actor who wasn’t an Adonis, basically: Tom Hanks, John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman. It has nothing to do with performance,” the mag couldn’t resist publishing a two-page photo reenactment of Splash featuring Mr. LaBeouf with a disturbingly breasty lady of the sea.
It’s not that Mr. LaBeouf isn’t a talent or deserving of a bright future. His face is fresh. He’s quick with a quip on the late-night chat show circuit. He had a charmingly kooky childhood (Mom smoked a lot of weed; Dad was a professional clown; hot dogs were for dinner!). But if young Shia is what makes a leading man these days, we’re in trouble. He’s barely legal, and the star of his biggest film wasn’t even him; it was a robot disguised as a car.
Yet, after Transformers raked in almost $70 million its opening weekend, an almost audible sigh of relief rolled down the Hollywood Hills and reverberated across the land: A star! A star! Thank God almighty, at last a star! Of course, the anointment of Mr. LaBeouf is only the latest attempt of the Hollywood hype machine to name its new leading man (alternating in its search for the next Julia Roberts). And, really, he might want to take cover once he checks out how the other recent almost-Clooneys have fared. Look at poor Orlando Bloom, who seems doomed to stay swashbuckling for life, one way or another. His brightest moment came not when he was handed the reins to Cameron Crowe’s lackluster Elizabethtown, or brandishing a sword in Kingdom of Heaven; it was when he got to make fun of himself on Ricky Gervais’s hilarious HBO hit Extras (“With this face? I wouldn’t get ignored. I’ll tell you who does get ignored—Johnny Depp. On the set of Pirates of Caribbean the birds just walked straight past him.”). And what about Irish charmer Colin Farrell (where is that guy, anyway?), more famous for his drunken make-out sessions at various Miami hotels than his occasionally fine acting performances. (We’ll forgive the well-intentioned A Home at the End of the World.) Jude Law seemed like a good bet … till people heard his attempt at a southern accent in All the Kings Men. “You want Tom Cruise and all you can get is Jude Law,” Chris Rock joked at the 2005 Academy Awards. “You want Russell Crowe and all you can get is Colin Farrell? Wait. Alexander is not Gladiator.”
Meanwhile, as entertainment reporting descends into round-the-clock celebrity nose-picking updates, the men who coulda been honest-to-god contenders are choosing to opt out. Johnny Depp lives abroad, appearing briefly to fulfill publicity obligations before disappearing—poof!—in a cloud of smoke. The onetime wonder boys Matt Damon and Ben Affleck seem far more interested in babies than staying in the spotlight. Ditto Spider-Man Tobey McGuire and man’s man Russell Crowe. The only way Leonardo DiCaprio makes the paparazzi spreads is while bicycling around the West Village in a baseball cap and shades, or by trying to save the environment. Sure, we’ve got Owen Wilson to bat around every once in a while, but generally speaking, even the comedy mafia (Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Paul Rudd) generally seems to fly low.