“Have you ever noticed how most critics disagree with the public?” asks a character in Shia LaBeouf’s new short film “HowardCantour.com,” which premiered at Cannes this week. “That should tell you a lot about critics.” LaBeouf would know something about the gulf between critical acclaim and blockbuster business — he’s made three Transformers movies, after all. But his short isn’t an attempt to slag on critics, not really: Instead, he tries to empathize with the sort of man who might earn a living taking potshots at the actor.
The short stars Jim Gaffigan as Howard Cantour, who runs the titular movie website with his carefully cultivated (and more than a little manufactured) critical eye. In the vein of Internet film columnist Jeff Wells, cranky Cantour turns up his nose at most studio movies and shamelessly maudlin heart-tuggers, and only barely tolerates the people he runs into in real life, including Portia Doubleday as a young and pretty film freelancer and Thomas Lennon as a fellow film blogger. “A critic is a warrior,” Cantour murmurs in his constantly running interior monologue, and his primary conflict is whether to publish a nasty blog post — “50 unstoppable megatons of Howard Cantour” — excoriating a filmmaker he used to revere (played by LaBeouf’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints helmer Dito Montiel).
But the short isn’t played as satire, and LaBeouf doesn’t go hard on Cantour: Instead, it’s a quiet, twelve-minute piece about opinions, critical credibility, and the awkward cross-currents between bloggers, publicists, and talent at press junkets. LaBeouf gently suggests that there can be more to moviemaking than meets the eye for critics eager to make their name on a scathing review, but he doesn’t press the point, and if you were expecting some of the boldness LaBeouf has displayed in other venues recently — whether directing short films with Marilyn Manson and Kid Cudi or publishing hand-drawn comics with titles like “Let’s Fucking Party” — you won’t get it. Cantour drops megatons, not LaBeouf.
Still, even if the short suggests that the actor has made peace with his critics — or at least attempted to understand where they’re coming from — LaBeouf seemed nervous about the potential reception for “HowardCantour.com.” “It’s really an honor to be presenting my directorial debut to this crowd,” he said before the lights dimmed. “It’s really outrageous to me.” (A French blogger on the scene says LaBeouf described himself as “fucking terrified.”) Appropriately, the name of the Cannes sidebar showing LaBeouf’s film: Critics Week.