American Gigolo knows what its best feature is. The Stan crime drama opens with a tight close-up in profile of its leading man, Jon Bernthal, disbelief and shock silently distorting his features. The actor suggests someone unconvinced of the reality he finds himself in, but his face is full of truths, most notably a nose with erratic lines suggesting historic contact with a clenched fist moving at velocity. Too shocked to speak, Bernthal’s Julian Kaye is already telling us about himself.
Our screens are awash with great actors, even if too many don’t get the material they deserve. What’s rare is for one to seize the moment as Bernthal has done in 2022, to suddenly suggest after years of quietly impressive work a way of defining screen culture simply by their performances. The quiet hum of his screen persona, whether brooding or charismatic, has started to pulse this year. You can feel it. Everything in his scenes is up for grabs.
Jon Bernthal as Julian Kaye in the TV series American Gigolo.Credit:Warrick Page/Showtime
Before American Gigolo, in which he plays a newly exonerated inmate returning to Los Angeles and the sex trade that shaped him after 15 years in jail for a wrongful murder conviction, Bernthal starred in Binge’s We Own This City. His crooked Baltimore cop, Wayne Jenkins, gave the spiritual successor to co-creator David Simon’s masterpiece, The Wire, a centre of gravity that somehow distorted the very system he operated in. Ripping off criminals and civilians alike, Wayne was a force of nature in the urban ecosystem.
Bernthal careened through all six episodes of We Own This City but required only a single scene halfway through the season to put his mark on FX’s revelatory restaurant comedy-drama The Bear (Disney+). The show’s protagonist, Michelin-starred chef Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), returns to Chicago to run the failing sandwich joint of his late older brother, Michael, a herculean figure whose downfall has left a hole in everyone’s lives.
The Bear is easily one of the year’s finest new shows, but I still gasped out loud when Bernthal unexpectedly appeared in a flashback as Michael. Prepping a veal dish for family and friends – no raisins! – he tells a rambunctious story that in one rattling, discursive monologue shows you why Michael’s magnetism overwhelmed his flaws until it was too late. When his best friend, Richie Jerimovich (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) later tries to tell the same yarn, it falls flat. Bernthal makes you believe that it’s Michael’s world, and we just live in it.
Jon Bernthal as crooked Baltimore copper Sgt Wayne Jenkins in We Own This City .
In a time of too much TV, the best actors are in demand. Bernthal is 46 years old and just a few years removed from pungent Hollywood supporting roles alongside Brad Pitt (Fury) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), but his off-kilter looks and finely pitched intensity make perfect sense now. In the same way that the gifted Cristin Milioti has made the discombobulated comic-thriller – see Stan’s Made for Love and The Resort – her wheelhouse, Bernthal is mapping out what comes after the male anti-hero.
Bernthal transcends the archetypes of his characters. In We Own This City, Wayne had an uncontrollable bravado – he kicked in doors and gamed the system with superior officers and drug dealers alike. But the notes Bernthal wove through his performance spoke to his human failings, whether it was wounded pride or incriminating jealousy. The show is based closely on real events, but the docudrama-dense narrative stops running in the closing moments, when an imprisoned Wayne is not defiant, but bewildered.
Jon Bernthal was unforgettable in a single scene of 2022’s hit series The Bear.Credit:FX
Likewise, the most interesting quality about American Gigolo, which loosely uses Paul Schrader’s 1980 thriller with Richard Gere playing the original Julian Kaye as a springboard, is that it lets Bernthal explore vulnerability. Released without warning, Julian is flummoxed by his sudden freedom. Knocking on the door of his mother’s trailer, he scrapes at the door in the desperate hope that it will open and offer him respite. Instead of seeking righteous vengeance for being framed, Bernthal makes Julian someone trying not to be dragged under.
Created by David Hollander (Ray Donovan), American Gigolo is a flawed series. It borrows memorable elements from the film, such as Blondie’s siren’s song Call Me, but has no interest in its themes of pleasure or agency. Brought forward to 2021, familiar outlines such as villainous billionaires and amoral pimps menace Julian, who gets flashbacks and exposition to fill out the plot. In a way, it’s a defining test for Bernthal: you wouldn’t bother with the show if a lesser actor was playing the lead role.
Bernthal passes that test. He may recall the idiosyncratic leading men of the 1970s, and he certainly matches their dedication to a part, but this is his time. “You can’t hurt him,” Julian tells a lover in American Gigolo, explaining how he created his professional alter-ego, a charming high-end sex worker, to protect himself. It’s an emblematic aside, because whether as a terror or a turncoat, there’s something undeniably tender about Jon Bernthal’s work. He’s killing them softly.
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