character studies

Brendan Fraser Is Giving the Most Delightful Performance on TV Right Now

Brendan Fraser in Trust. Photo: FX

In the first episode of FX’s Trust, we are introduced to the show’s kaleidoscopic web of characters and the lavish, messed-up world they inhabit. We meet the curmudgeonly John Paul Getty Sr. (Donald Sutherland), the wealthiest man in the world, who has a harem and a lioness and a vast mansion, yet makes his guests use a payphone. We meet the male heirs who have disappointed him, like reformed drug-addict son John Paul Getty Jr. (played by Michael Esper), and long-haired grandson John Paul Getty III (Harris Dickinson), who’s about to be kidnapped by the Italian Mafia and held for ransom.

But in the second episode, we get to hang out with Brendan Fraser.

Yes, Brendan Fraser: Encino Man, the Mummy-slayer, the jungle’s vine-swinging George. In his glorious return to the pop-culture Zeitgeist, the erstwhile ’90s action-hero heartthrob plays Fletcher Chace, John Paul Getty Sr.’s cowboy-hat-clad fixer and private eye, who’s been dispatched to Italy to help find his missing grandson. Early in the episode, we watch Fraser stroll out the front door of his modest bed and breakfast near the Getty mansion, pick up a bottle of milk from the front stoop, and deliver a fourth-wall breaking monologue in his drawling Southern lilt.

“You look back and some years just shine bright in the memory,” Chace says, with a glint in his eye, bolo tie swinging from his neck. “Nineteen-forty-five: huge mushroom cloud big as God over Hiroshima. 1963, Dallas: JFK sprawled out in the back of a limo, shot through the head. 1969: a personal favorite, Buzz Aldrin slow-waltzing his way across the great old moon.” He hops in the back of a car and takes a big swig of milk. “But 1973, what can you say about that mousy-haired in-between girlfriend of a year? Too old for the swinging ’60s, too young for disco,” he continues. “Nineteen-seventy-three: the year the milk went sour … and a young kid disappeared.” Boom.

In a recent panel I attended about the show, creator Danny Boyle told viewers how Fraser had helped shape the character. Fraser, he explained, had suggested that Chace might actually be a “time traveler.” (Indeed, how else would he know that 1973 was too young for disco?) They took that idea and ran with it, making it so Chace was not just a character in the show but a slightly magical narrator figure, both participating in the action and observing it from a distance. (Mark Wahlberg played the role of Chace in All the Money in the World, utterly free of any time-traveling magic realism).

This vaguely meta performance — in which Fraser is very much playing a character, but also kinda sorta playing Brendan Fraser — is a joy to watch for many reasons. From the moment he steps onto the screen, it’s hard not to feel delight at seeing Fraser’s familiar, dependable face back in action. It’s like crossing paths with an old friend you have’t seen in years. And while it’s instantly very funny to see George of the Jungle swaggering around in a cowboy hat and interrogating various Italian restauranteurs and mobsters, there’s also a poignancy to seeing him this role.

Fraser’s nostalgic familiarity quickly informs our sense of the character, imbuing Chace with a decency and steadfastness that sets him apart from almost everybody else on the show. Likewise, the physicality that defined his early roles — a big hunk of man-meat swinging from jungle vines — is put to use here, as Chace bops around Italy with ultra-American swagger. (This time, however, he has his shirt on.) But what really makes the performance exciting to watch is that it’s a marked evolution from his roles of the past, and a unique meta-commentary on his surprising career trajectory.

I’m basing much of my analysis on a recent GQ profile by writer Zach Baron, which sought to answer a question many of us didn’t know we had: What ever happened to Brendan Fraser? The piece describes how Fraser went from being one of the biggest stars in the world to pretty much disappearing from Hollywood entirely. It’s worth reading the profile in full, but essentially it describes the physical and psychological toll of being a hunky leading man for so many years, and how how a series of personal tragedies, including a horrific sexual assault, wore him down and forced him into solitude. It also gives a sense of who Fraser is in 2018 — a charming, soulful ranch-dude, tinged with an air of melancholy and weary from a life beset with hardship, with a touch of trippy McConaughey-esque mysticism about him, prone to meandering rants about life and art and his giant horse named Pecas. As Baron writes: “He can’t help but digress … his mind is like a maze. You wander in and then emerge, hours or days later, disoriented but appreciative that something so unpredictable can still exist in this world.”

Fraser’s return to the spotlight, now as a character actor, reminds me of the ‘McConaissance’ in a lot of ways. A big part of Matthew McConaughey’s jubilant return to film and TV glory was based in how he simultaneously owned his well-worn celebrity persona and gleefully subverted it, reimagining the familiar good-time dude of Dazed and Confused for more dark and mature narrative worlds.

It’s a similar case with Fraser. In some ways, the role of Fletcher Chace harnesses the naïve, childlike charm that has always been a part of Fraser’s appeal; as Boyle described in the panel, Fraser initially asked if his character could ride into the show on a horse (they gave him a toy horse to play with in a scene instead). With his charming digressions, he feels much like the eccentric storyteller we meet on the farm in Baron’s GQ profile, and with his uncanny time-traveler quality, he’s has shades of the wacky outsider he played in early roles like Encino Man or George of the Jungle. Yet unlike those early big-screen characters, who always seemed to be “beholding the world for the first time,” as Baron puts it, his Chace has a certain world-weary melancholy to him, a touch of hard-earned omniscience those characters lacked.

Trust is a story about the corruption of wealth and the fraying bonds of family, a world where rot and decay lie just behind the decadent frescos and shimmering gold leaf. Chace, as Getty Sr.’s lackey, is both part of this twisted world and slightly removed from it. And Fraser is the perfect audience proxy to lead us headfirst into the show’s thicket of lies and greed — dependable yet mysterious, trustworthy but battle-scarred, simultaneously strange and familiar all at once.

Brendan Fraser Is Giving TV’s Most Delightful Performance