Owen Gleiberman
August 03, 2010 AT 05:59 PM EDT

Image Credit: Pamela Littkey; Diyah PeraThe announcement that Justin Bieber, the hip-swiveling Canadian teen-pop sensation who looks like a 12-year-old Hilary Swank in a windswept helmet, would be starring in his very own 3-D biopic, to be released next Valentine’s Day, occasioned shrieks of gratitude (at least, from his fans), along with more than a few chortles and eye rolls. All of that may be deserved. Bieber is now 16 years old, which sort of makes you wonder: Will the first half hour of this movie take place while he’s still in a high chair? To put it mildly, he doesn’t seem to have lived a long enough life to be telling his life story, and the list of biopics that actually star the subjects as themselves is very, very short, and not auspicious. When Muhammad Ali chose to portray himself in The Greatest, back in 1977, even that, coming from one of the most mythological self-promoters of the 20th century, seemed at the time like a rather startlingly blunt act of egotism run amok.

Nevertheless, I have to say: This is an incredibly shrewd move on Bieber’s part.

For one thing, he’s a very talented dude, with more personality in his soaring rockin’-bird vocals, and his dance moves, than you’d find in all three Jonas Brothers mashed together. What’s truly savvy about the idea of a Justin Bieber biopic, though, as shameless and calculated an act of marketing as it may be, is that it’s just so damn…in-your-face. It’s Bieber’s way of saying: I’m here. I’m a sizzling commodity. Get used to it. And that’s what a teen idol today has to do to cut through the clutter. He, or she, must seize the focus, force the hot spotlight right onto his talent. I imagine that the Bieber movie will feature a fair amount of performance footage anyway — that the “biopic” aspect may, in fact, be just a way of dressing up a concert film. For the sheer audacity of the announcement, though, I’d have to say that Bieber and his army of handlers have won the week.

The week’s big loser, of course, is Zac Efron, who I treated rather harshly — and I stand by it — in my review of the saccharine, inert dud Charlie St. Cloud. Since I’ve liked Efron, a lot, in all three of the High School Musical films, there’s a reason I beat up on him here. He wasn’t just tepid and sort of owlishly blah — he was tepid and owlishly blah in the exact same way that he was in Me and Orson Welles, the genial, rather slack Richard Linklater movie that came out at the end of last summer. What I saw now, even more strongly than I did a year ago, is that Efron, as winsomely likable and good-looking as he is, lacks the internal hum that a dynamic actor needs. If he just keeps putting himself in dramas like Charlie St. Cloud, aimed to tap into the prefab swoon of his fan base, he’s going to dwindle as a star. Simply put, what he needs to do is another musical — not another High School Musical, but a big, bold, outrageous musical, on the order of Hairspray or even Moulin Rouge! Which is exactly the kind of movie that Hollywood should be making right now anyway. Why on earth did Efron cut himself loose from the upcoming remake of Footloose? I say: Big mistake.

Efron, in fact, was terrific in the film version of Hairspray. The stylized nature of musicals makes much better use of his poster-boy prettiness, makes it an asset instead of a liability. And as the HSM movies proved, when Efron sings and dances, he really is a star. Remember the auto-junkyard dance in High School Musical 3? I compared him to Gene Kelly in that scene, and I meant it: He had that same brand of joyful, low-down American athleticism. What Zac Efron and his handlers need to do now is to take a good long look at what his talent really is, and to do everything they can to tailor a movie to it. They need to make Hollywood fit him, rather than trying to make him fit into Hollywood. For this week, at least, they should think about taking a page from the book of Justin Bieber.

So which of these two stars do you think has a bigger, brighter future? And do you agree with me about Efron and musicals? Was he right to pull out of Footloose? Now that his career has hit a bump in the road, is there another sort of role that you’d like to see him play?

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