'The Fall of the American Empire': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
An avalanche of wish-fulfillment, less sociopolitically aware than it thinks.

Denys Arcand follows the money in a Robin Hood-y caper.

The titles of Denys Arcand's movies (Jesus of Montreal, The Decline of the American Empire) have usually been more provocative than the films themselves, however worthwhile those pictures — like his ambivalent, Oscar-winning look at Canadian health care, The Barbarian Invasions — turn out to be. So it should come as no shock that The Fall of the American Empire is not a trenchant assessment of Donald Trump's job performance. In fact, it has nearly nothing to do with America, unless one wants to go out on an allegorical limb and say that its dweeby, philosophical hero represents Canada, with the U.S. represented by one of several thieving gangsters whose money he finds. Let's let someone else write that term paper, and instead draw the more obvious conclusion: Fall is Pretty Woman for socialists, a Capital-conscious fairy tale in which a nice guy not only attempts a perfect crime but wins the heart of a prostitute hitherto moved only by American dollars. Though diverting and agreeably left-leaning, at heart it's not the art house fare one might expect, given its maker and the Sony Pictures Classics logo attached to the opening credits.

The Canuck dweeb in question is Pierre Paul (Alexandre Landry), who spends the opening scene telling his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend that he's "too intelligent" to succeed in the world. He makes some good points about how the world's highest achievers, even authors and philosophers, tend to be "dumb as mules," but even when he's right, it's hard to get completely on this guy's side.

Then this smart fella benefits from dumb luck. On the job as a FedEx-style courier, he stumbles onto the scene of a heist gone very wrong: Two men were robbing a major gang's stash when a third walked in, intending to do the same thing. Only one of the men survived the ensuing gunfight, and was too wounded to carry away the two massive duffel bags he'd filled with cash. Pierre thinks he's being very smart when he sneaks those bags away from the crime scene, then stashes them in a storage locker. But every dummy he meets for the rest of the film will know better.

Pierre is going to find someone with the expertise to help launder that money — Sylvain, an ex-con who earned a finance degree while in jail, played by longtime Arcand collaborator Remy Girard — but first he has to use just a bit of the ill-gotten loot. Searching for Montreal-area escorts, he's repulsed by the vulgarity he sees; then he stumbles across a web page with swanky design and a quote from Racine. He's aroused even before he sees the slinky "Aspasie" (Canadian TV host Maripeier Morin) in the flesh. By their second "date," the two are walking through the city all night getting to know each other. Could she be falling for this nervous man who gives all his free time and money to the homeless? Or is she long-conning him for those two big bags of cash?

The plot these three characters hatch is intriguing enough, and gives Arcand's script a chance to vent a bit about the ways the rich move money around the globe to keep from being taxed. The narrative's threat to their plans, though, is more mundane: A pair of police detectives seemingly yanked out of a basic-cable cop show just know Pierre found that money, and they stalk both him and the assorted criminals who are trying to retrieve it, spouting the usual lines and threatening to come back with a warrant.

The most memorable scene in this subplot represents a real stumble for this politically conscious filmmaker: A room of white gangsters, torturing the black man they think has their money, chain his arms behind his back and hoist him off the ground slowly, waiting until his joints give way with a sickening snap. Even if it's not fatal, a machine-assisted lynching has no place in a yarn this lightweight. Later on, when Arcand follows his happy ending up with a series of straight-to-camera portraits of the homeless, the shots' incongruity with all this wish-fulfillment is similarly off-key.

Production company: Cinemaginaire
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Alexandre Landry, Maripeier Morin, Remy Girard, Louis Morissette, Maxim Roy, Pierre Curzi, Vincent Leclerc, Patrick Emmanuel Abellard, Florence Longpre, Eddy King
Director-screenwriter: Denys Arcand
Producer: Denise Robert
Director of photography: Van Royko
Editor: Arthur Tarnowski
Composers: Nico Muhly, Anton Sanko
Casting director: Lucie Robitaille
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)

In French and English
Rated R, 127 minutes