Denys Arcand once again literately attacks evil capitalism with his finely-tuned, academic lens.
The decline becomes an all out fall in writer/director Denys Arcand’s latest crime comedy “The Fall of the American Empire.” In 1986, Arcand gave us “The Decline of the American Empire,” a film that I’ve not seen, but if it’s anything like his latest effort, an indictment of wealth is a theme. Oh, and sexual politics abound.
In “Fall,” we meet Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry), a PHD educated young man, who works as a delivery driver because the pay is better than teaching. In the film’s opening sequence, his long-time girlfriend breaks up with him. She explains something like he’s never been able to tell her that he loves her. His response focuses on deeply political and philosophical beliefs that are greatly detached from his personal relationship struggles. Pierre-Paul is hopeless and wandering, blaming societal excesses for his presumed failures.
One day, while on a delivery, Pierre-Paul witnesses a violent robbery gone wrong. In a muted hail of bullets and bodies, a huge sum of money is left behind, and prior to the police arriving, Pierre-Paul puts the bags in his delivery van. Denying that he saw the robbery, he then leaves the scene, the money now in his possession. What should Pierre-Paul do with all the loot? It’s a problem that he did not even consider before making his impulsive cash grab. And the dangerous people to whom the money belongs are likely to come looking for it.
Arcand’s script hits all the marks in hopes of finding some measure of commercial success. For all his characters’ moaning and groaning about the wealthy who exploit the poor, this film takes full mercenary advantage of some familiar movie conceits adhering close to formula. Therefore, we get a beautiful high-end call-girl who goes by the classical Greek name Aspasie (Maripier Morin), and ensnares the naive Pierre-Paul with exciting sex, while attempting to find out where he’s hidden his stash. Of course, she’s a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, who’s also been well-educated and sends money to her single hairdresser mother. And she falls for the hapless Pierre-Paul, who is instantly head-over-heels for the alluring and sexually adventurous young woman.
Perhaps the most interesting character is Sylvain ‘The Brain” Bigras, played by Rémy Girard, a biker banker criminal, recently released from prison, where he studied finance through a college program. Pierre-Paul turns to Sylvain for financial advice, and naturally, the old biker, turned man of finance, helps take the money off Pierre-Paul’s hands. Girard is really great here, having worked with Arcand before, most notably in the 2003 Oscar-winning film “The Barbarian Invasions.”
While “The Fall of the American Empire” is billed as a crime/comedy, don’t expect any thrilling action sequences or any laugh-out-loud comedy bits. Aside from some ultra-violence involving the criminals looking for the money, the action is held to a realistic minimum. And the funny moments are mainly achieved through heady dialogue in which Pierre-Paul’s innocent qualities are exposed and his rejection of wealth is tested when he acquires such a large sum of money.
The ironic question posed might be whether Pierre-Paul would use his PHD to teach if the money were good enough. He’s a deeply conflicted soul, which defines this somewhat flat effort from Arcand. It’s a film that never lets go and takes flight, either as a comedy or as a crime story. And in the end, Arcand tacks on shots of the faces of the homeless, as if to say that’s really what this farce is supposed to be about. And maybe it is about deeper issues, but the film is neither heavy enough nor entertaining enough to earn the meaningful ending. What not owned up to is that somewhere out there in the dark, the criminals who lost their money are lurking dangerous and likely to bring death on the light-hearted dreamer and his sensuous new girlfriend.
Arcand’s latest movie fails to convincingly indict the financial system in the same way that his “The Barbarian Invasions” exposed problems with the health care system.