Sunday, July 19, 2009

2 Years Ago in the Screengrab: The Romantic Comedy Subsidy Program

FALL, 2007: Matthew McConaughey is sitting in front of the TV in his trailer when the door swings open and Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, ushers us inside. McConaughey springs for the remote, but before he can switch off the set, we can see that he's been watching himself in the 1996 John Sayles picture Lone Star. Bernanke simply smiles, but Kate Hudson doesn't bother stifling her laughter. McConaughey blushes. "Did'ja read Janet Maslin's review of that one in the New York Times?" he asks. "Compared me to Paul Newman. Said that I should have had the lead in it, that I should have had Chris Cooper's part."

Hudson sits down next to him on the couch and gives him an affectionate hug. "I should show you my notices from Almost Famous sometimes," she purrs.

"'Course," says McConaughey, "Chris Cooper's got an Academy Award now. Which he deserves! He kept at it, kept acting, and you know, I decided to do this instead." Then he remembers that Bernanke is in the room. Looking up at the Chairman, he adds, with just a race of sheepishness in his voice, "And I'm proud to do it. It's important work."

McConaughey and Hudson are working on Fool's Gold, the latest project of the Federal Rom-Com Make-Work Administration, a division of the Fed that was set up under Alan Greenspan in 2002. A dedicated Randian, Greenspan saw the Administration's work as a way to generate work in the film business while at the same time isolating the kind of mediocrity that was so offensive to him as a follower of John Galt. Every year, the F.R.C.M.W.A. would put into production a handful of films that would keep the most mediocre technicians, directors, actors, and crew members fully employed and occupied, boosting the national employment numbers while keeping those employed from polluting the talent pool from which those trying to make actual good movies were forced to draw. The F.R.C.M.W.A. projects might employ a few good supporting actors, just to make the experience bearable for those involved; on projects so fetid that no good actor wanted any part of them, they could always make do by casting Dane Cook in multiple roles.

It was decided early on that, to make it easier to identify the F.R.C.M.W.A. projects from the other films released in a given year, three people who had established acting careers for themselves would be hired to exclusively appear in the Administration's pictures. It was a hard sacrifice; it meant effectively retiring from the acting profession. Hudson and McConaughy were among those first approached. Hudson was quick to sign on. "It just sounded easy, you know? I mean, I hear these other girls talk about creating characters, testing themselves, trying new things, blah blah blah, and maybe I don't get it. I do this, and I still get paid and my picture's in People and if there's a 'rock star'"--Hudson rolls her eyes as she makes air quotes with her fingers--"that nobody else wants, I can marry him. Maybe I'm missing something, but if you can get that with hard work and I can get it just by watching my diet and showing up, why would I want to do any hard work, when knowing that it's not even supposed to be any good is such a tremendous load off." She shrugs. "I guess I'm my mother's daughter, y'know?"

McConaughey took some persuading. "I sort of miss acting," he admits. "I mean, maybe I was only any good in like, one out of fifteen times at bat...that little bit I did in Dazed and Confused, it was kind of entertaining, right?" He looks at me open-mouthed for a long time. I'm slow to catch on that he's actually waiting for me to say yes. I nod, and he looks very relieved. "Now, you take your A Time to Kill and your Contact and your Amistad--okay, I'm a little bitter about Amistad. I think that Steven Spielberg could have protected me better. I mean, maybe not guide me to a good performance. I understand that he had a lot of other things to think about on that one. But he was in charge of the editing, not me, and there's just so much he could have cut out that would have made it less embarrassing. You know, that moment where I'm supposed to be a lawyer in the 1830s, and I get a ruling that I like, and I pump my arm and say, 'Yes!' like I'm playing pick-up basketball...I asked him, years later, I asked him, 'Steven, I know I deserve the blame for being the one who did it, but why didn't you just cut it out?" And you know what he told me? He said, 'Matthew, I remember when you did it during filming, I had what my doctor later diagnosed as a mini-stroke, and when I came to, I didn't remember you'd done it. And then when we were editing, every time I saw that moment in the footage, I'll be darned if I didn't have another mini-stroke, and forget all about it again. I didn't retain my awareness that you done it, and that I'd left it in the picture, until the red-carpet premiere. I mean, when I saw you do it up there on the big screen, naturally, I had another mini-stroke and blacked out. But this time, when I came to a few minutes later, everybody in the theater was still laughing."

McConaughey continues, "So I did keep plugging away, and I wanted to keep trying, but I was up late one night mulling over the offer, and thinking about how my career was going. And the last real movie I did was this thing where I fought a dragon." McConaughey's eyes seem to mist over. "I picked up the phone and said, sure. If it's good for the economy..."

McConaughey and Hudson co-starred in the F.R.C.M.W.A's first project, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. Since then, McConaughey has starred in 36 films for the administration, with Hudson making 47. This is the first time they've co-starred since Ten Days, making it a bittersweet reunion for them both. They and the others who've become an essential component in the process have learned a lot as they've gone. "Sometimes," Hudson says, "in the early days, there'd be a line in a script that makes you laugh, and you're like, whoa, how did that get in there? It''ll turn out that the writers have trouble padding out the scripts to feature length by themselves. So they'll 'borrow'"--she makes the air quotes again--"lines or ideas from their friends, or family members, or something the saw on the Internet, or somebody peeing himself in front of the bus stop, and it may turn out that those people have some talent." It used to be policy that anything good that found its way into a script would be peeled off and submitted to the writing staff of The Simpsons. "But," says Hudson, "that doesn't really happen anymore since Ben came on board with his little 'brainstorm.""

Bernanke succeeded Greenspan as head of the Federal Reserve in 2006 and was immediately briefed on the workings of the F.R.C.M.W.A. "And at that time," he says, "the Iraq War had really hit the wall and the guys whose bright idea that was were not in very great demand, so there were all these neo con geniuses roaming the halls of the White House, starting crap games and weeping. So I thought to myself, these are guys who were brought in for their understanding of foreign policy and national defense, and when a bunch of lunatics from Saudi Arabia staged a terrorist attack on American soil, their big master plan was, we should find a country in the Middle East that has no connection to these nut jobs and where there's a tin horn dictator who won't even let them set a toe inside the country, and invade that place, and topple the government, and create such chaos that everybody there hates our guts, and the lunatics who attacked us can roll in for the first time ever and use it as their farm team, that'll show 'em. I got to thinking, wow, what would a bunch of minds like that do with a subject like courtship strategy? So I told Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, Condalleezza Rice, and Richard Perle that it was vital to our national interests that I had spec scripts for romantic comedies from each of them on my desk within the week, and within four hours Feith turns in the screenplay of Failure to Launch!" The scripts are produced under pseudonyms. It turned out that Rice, who prepared for the assignment by buying a box set of Love, American Style, had a sense of farce structure just rudimentary enough in its general level of competence that her scripts have a chance of being slightly better than bearable. Bernanke sells them to Jennifer Lopez's company.

I note that neither McConaughey nor Hudson has yet made a film with the third working headliner of the F.R.C.M.W.A., Jennifer Aniston. Is that a matter of just never finding the right script.

"Actually," says Bernanke, "that's kind of a soft spot around here, because while Jennifer is a very important member of the Administration, she doesn't know that she's in the Administration. Along Came Polly, The Break-Up, Marley & Me--she thinks they're all real movies. And we humor her because she's such a valuable member of the team. You see, the scripts that Jennifer does, they aren't generated in-house. Somebody trying to do his best actually wrote them, but they're absolutely F.R.C.M.W.A.-quality. Jennifer herself picked them out from the pile; she has the most unerring instincts for what it is we do. We like to this of her," Bernanke beams, "as our little truffle-hunting friend."

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