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Brendan Fraser: Invisible action hero

This is a man who knows a weird secret of Hollywood, the one where, if you play it right, you can recede into the background and still make jillions of dollars in huge movies.
/ Source: contributor

Brendan Fraser came to my apartment last night. He was on a Papa John’s pizza box. More accurately, an ad for his upcoming movie “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” was on the box. It covered the whole box, too. The box flap read, “Awaken someone’s appetite!” and there’s a big photo of floppy-haired Brendan wielding two old-timey wooden swords.

Lots of people get their noses bent out of shape by marketing like this. They find it intrusive. They like their pizza boxes to be boring. Not me. I appreciate that in this context, my appetite for pizza is analogous to a sleeping, undead corpse; the box is the tomb to be opened; and the pizza is… OK the pizza is also a sleeping, undead corpse. It falls apart if you think about it too hard. The point is that it made me go, “Oh yeah, Brendan Fraser’s in a new movie.”

And then I realized, “Oh yeah, Brendan Fraser is also in this week’s ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth.’”

And then I ate the pizza and threw out the box and forgot that he’s got any movies coming out at all. And that is the mystery appeal of Brendan Fraser: his ability to slip in and out of your consciousness like a cardboard pizza box. How does he do it?

If Will Smith or Tom Cruise had two potentially huge movies coming out this summer in a one-two punch like that, especially if one was the third film in a monstrously money-making, pizza-box-embossment-worthy franchise and the other was a tech-heavy, 3-D family movie about being sucked down into a giant sinkhole, you’d never stop hearing about it, them, their families, their shaving habits, their charities, their travails, their recent purchase of an island or castle or baseball team or family of endangered manatees, their wacky religion, their disavowal of being connected to a wacky religion, all of it. You’d be saturated.

Contrast this to the only media I’ve seen all week about Brendan Fraser: a photo op of him hoisting some unknown kid in the air. In this picture, Brendan Fraser has a wet spot of undetermined origin on his T-shirt.

And that’s it.

The stealth starThis is a man who knows a weird secret of Hollywood, the one where, if you play it right, you can recede into the background and still make jillions of dollars in huge movies and walk around mostly not-bothered by anything and not turn into that much of a lunatic freak. You can win by being invisible.

The proof: he’s done the “Mummy” movies, but do you remember what he did in them? He was in “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.” Got any favorite quotes from that one? The answer to both of those questions is no, you don’t. Because he understands that those movies weren’t about him. He got out of the way and let the cash roll in.

He’s a funny actor who got his start playing endearing morons in stuff like “Encino Man,” “Airheads” and “George of The Jungle.” His best movie, Bill Condon’s “Gods and Monsters,” showed he was capable of leaving Paulie Shore territory and playing a lug who thinks (he keeps making small indies that few critics love and fewer ticket-buyers see), and his moments in the award-winning-but-dopey “Crash” were few.

But it’s the big tentpole summer films where he’s cemented his status as That Guy in That Movie We Saw That One Time, The One That Had The Rock Being The Scorpion King. I don’t want to accuse him of being generic. I don’t know that he’s that easily reducible. But he’s so incredibly accessible and on-screen affable that he becomes simply another cog in the blockbuster machine — the most well-paid cog, but still. He knows his place.

He’s the inverse male version of Nicole Kidman, the person who makes big studio projects that tank and who shines in small, strange movies like “Birth.” And he’s the anti-Brad Pitt, a man who, while apparently made of super-magnets that draw all of life on Earth into rapt fascination every time he hoists Maddox onto his shoulders, has no game when it comes to opening weekend box office. Fraser makes hits. And then he disappears.

Nice guy finishes first ... quietlyI live in Los Angeles and I have some friends who work in TV and movies. They do all that crew stuff. And they talk. I’ve heard great stories about high-strung weirdo actors. But I’ve never heard a single thing about Brendan Fraser, save for some Rogaine-related speculation about his hair. (And when Nicolas Cage beats you to crazy rug-land, you kind of have to pursue the undetectable route or risk being seen as a copy-cat.)

I imagine he shows up on time, learns his lines, treats everyone nicely and is totally professional. I hear he warmly welcomes the fan on the street and seemingly just stays home with his kids when he’s not running from other-worldly creatures in front of a green screen.

He’s not gadding about shirtless with Lance Armstrong or roping Posh and Becks into a blinding display of public paparazzi dazzlement. When he wants to blow off steam he shows up for a one-off episode of “Scrubs” with his bloody hand nailed to a board. Then he plays Gay Chicken (that’s the game where two straight guys pretend like they’re going to kiss each other and the first one who backs out loses) with the male cast members.

So if watching him deliver 22 minutes of genuinely funny talent on that sitcom makes me wish for something more than what he’ll undoubtedly be required to do in 2009’s “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra,” that wish passes quickly. I just don’t care that much. I’ll see “Mummy 3” and “Journey” like everyone else, because the pizza box told me to. Those theaters are going to be air-conditioned!

Dave White is the author of “Exile in Guyville.” He can be found at .