Commentary: Brendan Fraser might be 'neither fish nor fowl,' but he's an animal at the boxoffice


Everybody in Hollywood talks about the A-list, but there also is the shadow A-list.

Or maybe, call it the A-minus list.

Regardless, atop it is Brendan Fraser, whose latest film, New Line's adaptation of the popular Cornelia Funke kids book "Inkheart," opens Friday from Warner Bros.

The movie is low on Hollywood's radar, just like Fraser, but it's worth noting that last year he toplined two hits that collectively grossed $626 million worldwide: "Journey to the Center of the Earth" traveled to $102 million domestically on its way to a $229 million global total, while "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" unwrapped a $102 domestic million tally and $398 million worldwide.

Only "The Dark Knight" and Will Smith (with "Hancock" and "Seven Pounds") made more at the boxoffice. Yet while Smith is considered the biggest star in Hollywood and "Dark Knight" is getting loads of acclaim, Fraser gets little respect. He might be one of the most underrated stars working today.

Still, he's been delivering the goods consistently for more than a decade. Remember 1997's "George of the Jungle"? It swung to a $105 million domestic tally. And with the third "Mummy" film under his belt -- after 1999's "The Mummy" and 2001's "The Mummy Returns" -- Fraser can brag that he's starred in a billion-dollar franchise.

"Part of the problem is he is neither fish nor fowl," says Rob Cohen, who directed last year's "Mummy." "When we think of Steve Carell, we think comedy; when we think of Brad Pitt or Matt Damon, we think drama or action. And Brendan straddles those worlds."

It is something the low-key, soft-spoken actor has done almost since the beginning; in 1992, his breakout year, he starred in the comedy "Encino Man" (with Pauly Shore, no less) and the prep school drama "School Ties."

Fraser's conundrum is one of image. He's a pretty handsome guy with an intrinsic goofy quality, incongruous for some when they draw up cast lists for action movies. But somehow, Fraser has made it work in a small but important segment of films: the family adventure.

"Crash" writer/co-director Paul Haggis credits Fraser for having the ability to ground a character regardless of how hammy the role is.

"He has a Cary Grant quality where he can wink at you but he's not winking at the camera," Haggis says. "He's letting you in on the joke, but he's not trying to step back and say, 'I'm not really doing this.' "

Another quality that seems to serve Fraser well -- and this dovetails with the modern family adventure movie -- is his ability to work with greenscreens. As many close to him say, he prides himself on being a mime.

One producer describes watching Fraser on a greenscreen set intensely wrestling with nothing but air. Although initially skeptical, he was amazed when he eventually saw the results.

Fraser's predicament in some ways mirrors the problem once faced by Ben Affleck, who despite starring in big-budget fare never could shake the perception of some that he was a second-choice guy. Affleck changed that mind-set by getting serious, appearing in "Hollywoodland" and then directing "Gone Baby Gone."

But Fraser already has displayed serious acting chops in such movies as "Gods and Monsters" and "The Quiet American"; his co-stars in both secured Oscar nominations. And joining the cast of a small movie called "Crash" directed by some TV guy was key in securing $6.5 million in financing, thereby greenlighting a film that eventually would win the best picture Oscar.

Maybe Fraser's problem is he lacks a dangerous sexuality that many leading men possess. It makes him a safe commodity in those family adventure movies but limits him when he ventures off that particular reservation. Fraser can play the romantic and get the girl, but is he the type that can engage in a virile sex scene?

It's a trait Fraser shares with Tom Hanks: Their everyman image lets audience members to relate to them, but that very quality doesn't allow them to wake up in bed next to a looker as Pitt or Daniel Craig might.

Nonetheless, Fraser is doing just fine. He recently signed on to play opposite Harrison Ford in CBS Films' first project, a medical drama, and he is expected to ink for another comedy soon. And he makes $8 million-$10 million per picture.

But if it's a makeover he wants, he needs a role, or maybe even a directing gig, that will shake up audiences -- knocking both the actor and his fans out of their mutual comfort zone.