‘The Fall of the American Empire’ does not have highs and lows
Written and directed by: Denys Arcand
Starring: Alexandre Landry, Maripier Morin and Remy Girard
“The Fall of the American Empire” - Three numbers: .1, 188 and 90.
The richest .1 percent of Americans earn 188 times as much as the bottom 90 percent, according to a 2017 study featured on inequality.org. The 2019 numbers surely have grown more disproportionate, but if one thinks that the U.S. is the only country with such frightening statistics, the answer is no. Include Canada too.
Set in Montreal, writer/director Denys Arcand (“The Barbarian Invasions” (2003)) disburses “The Fall of the American Empire”, an economic inequality commentary delivered by a comedy-caper storyline. Unfortunately, the film is void of amusing, thrilling and dramatic highs and lows, as its tone and pacing remain flat for nearly the entire 2-hour 7-minute runtime.
Well, the movie does have some curious moments, and yes, Arcand’s moral-messaging somewhat-connects - albeit via repeated and obvious didactic deliveries - but the overall narrative fails to deliver big payoffs.
Our hero Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) certainly feels the need for a big payoff, both emotionally and financially. He graduated with a PhD in philosophy, but rather than teach, he earns more delivering packages for Col Par, which resembles UPS’s Canadian first cousin.
During a middle-of-the-day stop at a strip mall, he witness the aftermath of a robbery gone wrong, and two bulky duffle bags full of money lay at his feet. Rather than hand the nylon sacks of treasure to the police, Pierre-Paul quickly tosses them into his Col Par truck.
Despite his questionable – but understandable – ethical choice, Pierre-Paul - otherwise - lives by a strong moral code that compliments his pragmatic view of the world, born from his university-learned philosophic insights. He’ll justify his decisions throughout the picture with his ex-girlfriend Linda (Florence Longpre), new business partner Sylvain ‘The Brain’ Bigras (Remy Girard) and love interest Camille (Maripier Morin) by quoting various intellectuals like Ludwig Wittgenstein or Marcus Aurelius.
Arcand lays out a path for Pierre-Paul’s ultimate destination along with the mechanics of institutionally-hiding a heaping pile of dirty money. Pierre-Paul steps out of his comfort zones of commercial deliveries and complaints of modern society’s shortcomings and into criminal and banking universes, as his natural naiveté drags him into trouble, but his philosopher training lifts him up. Although these big-money worlds help shape Pierre-Paul’s new perspective, experienced moviegoers have frequently faced familiar criminal and comedy storylines through hours and hours of “Law & Order” and “The A-Team” episodes, but this feature film is missing the late-Jerry Orbach and Mr. T. Ah, if only…
Well, the clichés wouldn’t be complete without police detectives hot on Pierre-Paul’s trail, but they casually stroll into homes and businesses to interview forgettable mob bosses, their underlings and our hero with all the excitement of people-watching in a nearly-empty shopping mall.
The most engaging aspect of “The Fall of the American Empire” is Pierre-Paul’s volunteer work with the homeless. This is Arcand’s connection to the haves and have-nots dichotomy, but other than a couple random conversations with one displaced man, we don’t learn a whole lot about Pierre-Paul’s friends who frequent the soup kitchen.
Maybe Pierre-Paul will successfully hide the money in offshore accounts. Maybe he won’t. Don’t know if it matters a whole lot, but while reading this review, the richest .1 percent earned an even bigger piece of the economic pie. Oh well. Which ancient televisions shows are available to stream, and when does the mall close?
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.