THE WASHINGTON POST – In 1986 the Quebec filmmaker Denys Arcand made The Decline of the American Empire, a talky ensemble comedy preoccupied with Canada’s descent into moral and political malaise. With The Barbarian Invasions, in 2003, Arcand continued his cultural critique, focussing on the same group of academics and adulterers, who by this time were confronting mortality and a post-9/11 reality that had rendered their once-cherished ideologies utterly useless.
With The Fall of the American Empire, Arcand leaves the core characters of his previous films behind but not their concerns.
Once again, the filmmaker strives to mix comedy and thoughtfulness – here with uneven success – to comment on a society in which almost every good, service and relationship has been corporatised and commodified and in which values have been reduced to their most cynically transactional.
The film’s protagonist, Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry), is an idealistic philosophy graduate whose job as a UPS-like delivery man affords him a sunny, book-lined apartment in Montreal.
As The Fall of the American Empire opens, he is haranguing his girlfriend, a bank teller, about the intellectual poverty of novelists, philosophers and especially politicians.
“I’m too intelligent,” he said at one point. “It’s a handicap.”
Self-serious and ethically rigid, Pierre-Paul is the kind of fatuous but well-meaning hero that Joel McCrea might have played in a socially minded screwball comedy by Preston Sturges. And when he comes into an unexpected fortune after witnessing a crime, The Fall of the American Empire promises to turn into a classic caper flick, animated as much by vivid miscreants and improbable plot contrivances as by outrage at the obscene levels of corruption, inequality and greed currently infecting common life.
But if The Fall of the American Empire finds Arcand in justifiably high dudgeon and in firm command of the story’s swift pace, the tone is far more uneven, never quite achieving the comic liftoff that feels continually at hand.
As in the recent French release Non-Fiction, the characters in The Fall of the American Empire are foils for the filmmaker’s anxieties about modern life, here having mostly to do with the hypocrisy of the financial and legal worlds, as well as his longtime bête noire, the Canadian health bureaucracy: One petty criminal winds up in a hospital room that seems to be a jury-rigged broom closet.
That character happens to be black, as are all of the street-level hustlers and thieves in the film, a casting choice Arcand presumably made to point up the disparities of a racist criminal justice system but which often looks as if it’s perpetuating the very problem it illustrates. Perhaps the film’s most tiresome stereotype is a beautiful young woman named Camille (Maripier Morin), a loose woman with a heart of gold who is endowed with just as weighty a brain: her escort website references Socrates and Racine.
When Pierre-Paul enjoys a gentle scenario with Camille, while also quoting Plato’s dialogues, The Fall of the American Empire reaches peak eyeroll-inducing wish fulfillment. Floating in an unconvincing middle ground between realism and madcap fantasy, The Fall of the American Empire is at its best when Arcand is taking his potshots from a sly side angle.
Perhaps the film’s biggest laugh comes early, when alert viewers will notice that a scruffy strip-mall shop used as a money-laundering front is called “Hollywood”. Message received, Monsieur Arcand, and well played.