Primed to expect another part of a trilogy that included The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and The Barbarian Invasions (2003), I got about a third into The Fall of the American Empire and wondered if I wasn’t watching a thriller — one of those anonymous ones starring Ashley Judd or something that used to regularly top the box office charts. But québécois writer-director Denys Arcand has other plans. The Fall of the American Empire also purports to offer commentary on The Way Things Are — sideways, though, not in the form of the prodigious and often grueling talkfests of Arcand’s previous films. By the time –at more than two hours a long time — The Fall of the American Empire has ended, it has failed as a thriller and failed as commentary. Maybe we’re supposed to cut it slack because one of its characters quotes Marcus Aurelius.
A pity, for its premise has a Dostoevskian simplicity. Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry), a former philosophy student in Montreal who works as a package delivery man, bores his girlfriend (Florence Longpré) with the not exactly novel conclusion that intelligence and success are incompatible, a conclusion that Arcand seems not to have considered when making his movie. While on the job he stumbles into a robbery during which a sackful of Canadian dollars falls at his feet. He stuffs it into his truck, although he did think about it for more than a half a second; Arcand will freeze Landry in closeup in the hopes of catching him in the throes of moral agony instead of looking as if he remembered leaving pizza too long in the microwave. The West Side Gang wants the money, back. The cops, a pair of smoothies named Carla and Pete (Maxim Roy and Louis Morrisette) who are secretly lovers, don’t believe his alibi — that he was in the company of friend Camille (Maripier Morin), a call girl whom he can now afford and who, of course, has a heart made of a certain precious gem (her professional name: Aspasia, Socrates’ companion). To launder the money they turn to a debauched stockbroker (Pierre Curzi) and Sylvain (Arcand regular Remy Girard), fresh from a prison stint during which he also studied tax law.
This looks more exciting than it is. When the suspense consists of whether the police will catch the bad guys and the director offers nothing around the edges to sustain interest, a movie’s in trouble. Who did Arcand make this picture for? Worse, whom or what is Arcand targeting? The mildewed pensées are supposed to help: “Pro sports are the mental illness of politicians”; “the police force is the government. They’re never there to help.” The black characters he treats as plot points, in one gruesome and most uncharacteristic sequence fit to be tortured. Loquacious and often indifferently staged, The Barbarian Invasions and Decline offered minor pleasures: audiences who wanted idealized versions of their smug selves delighted in the repartee of his aging repertoire company (The Barbarian Invasions was an international hit at the height of the Iraq War). But The Fall presents the spectacle of a talent distracted from itself.