Was there a time, not long ago, when a smoothly operating hypocrite of a movie such as "The Fall of the American Empire" might've stolen the hearts of art-house audiences worldwide, even — or especially — in America?
You don't have to look this far back, but the commercial American cinema of the 1970s in particular couldn't get enough of caper and heist movies steeped in post-Watergate institutional loathing, paying lip service to social injustice while treating everyone pretty shabbily ("Fun with Dick and Jane," et al.). Not a lot has changed. We love to imagine tremendous wealth obtained the easy way. We relish the narrative payback of seeing rich weasels get theirs, now more than ever, probably.
Donald Trump, for the record, gets name-checked in the opening minutes of "The Fall of the American Empire," veteran Quebec writer-director Denys Arcand's new film. Delivering packages to a strip mall one fateful day, a young, twitchy, philosophy-mad courier van driver (Alexandre Landry, in the Jesse Eisenberg vein) stumbles onto a robbery in progress. The stolen money belongs to an underworld syndicate; amid the bloodshed, just before the cops arrive, the courier throws two big duffel bags stuffed with cash into his van.
From there, "The Fall of the American Empire" follows this man, Pierre-Paul, as he treats himself to Montreal's priciest call girl (Maripier Morin as Camille) and promptly falls in love. She's into Socrates and Racine; she has him, in other words, at bonjour.
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Though jarringly violent at times, the film becomes a wash of low-keyed comic attitudes thrown into the works of a crime story.
In better days Arcand made the Reagan-era "Decline of the American Empire" (1986) and its popular sequel, "The Barbarian Invasions" (2003). Those characters are nowhere to be found in "The Fall of the American Empire"; the movie's new, in theory, though much of it feels second-hand. That's not to say the filmmaking is slovenly, or the acting lacks commitment. But as Pierre-Paul's improbable gang of goodhearted thieves put their investment plan into motion, trying to stay a step ahead of the mob and the police, the observations regarding Montreal's homeless population and the inequities of our entire global economic capitalist system become, well, fishy. And smug. The injustice of it all! Wait, the courier and the call girl are stripping down!
In two exclamatory sentences, that's "The Fall of the American Empire."