There Is Honor Among Thieves In 'The Fall Of The American Empire'
In such half-seriously titled comic dramas as The Decline of the American Empire, writer-director Denys Arcand has chronicled the discontents of intellectuals in his native Montreal. He continues the series with The Fall of the American Empire, but with a significant wrinkle: This time, the characters include as many gangsters as PhDs.
We meet one of the latter first. Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) earned his advanced degree in philosophy, but works as a delivery man for a UPS-like company. Intelligence is a disadvantage in everyday life and great writers and thinkers of the past were "dumb as mules," Pierre-Paul glumly tells Linda (Florence Longpre), who's about to become his ex. At first, Linda seems incidental to Arcand's story. But she's a bank teller, which means she'll reappear later. Because the thing that's destroying the American empire — or Canada, or the world — is money.
The film's next stop is an unofficial, clandestine bank run by a wealthy thug. Pierre-Paul arrives at the end of a gunfight between an enforcer and two robbers. All three are too bloodied to retrieve a pair of large duffel bags stuffed with cash. Pierre-Paul takes the money on a whim, but soon begins to conceive a plan. The Aristotle-quoting delivery man enlists biker-gang leader Sylvain (Arcand regular Remy Girard), just released from prison. Seeking to take his rightful place in a greed-drunk society, Sylvain has been pursuing a degree in finance. Pierre-Paul decides to spend some of the found dollars on an elegant call girl (Maripier Morin). He's smitten because she uses the alias "Aspasie," a reference to a contemporary of Socrates, and ornaments her web page with a Racine quotation. Contacting Aspasie could be a dumb-as-a-mule move, but Arcand is not making a stupid-criminal farce. Indulging one of Hollywood's most implausible fantasies, the filmmaker makes Aspasie as benevolent as she is beautiful. She might even fall in love with Pierre-Paul, making him as absurdly fortunate as the protagonists of Risky Business and Pretty Woman.
One of Aspasie's former clients, an entirely respectable expert on hiding assets offshore, gives sage advice. Pierre-Paul also enlists Linda, as well as men from the homeless shelter where he volunteers. He even devises a redemptive role for one of the original robbers, who's been brutally tortured for not knowing the whereabouts of the cash he briefly stole. Of Pierre-Paul's new acquaintances, the only ones who aren't offered some sort of cut are a pair of detectives (Louis Morissette and Maxim Roy) who also nurse gripes about financial-sector malfeasance.
The Fall of the American Empire is a leftist fairy tale that elides a lot of real-world complications. There is honor among the movie's thieves, its hooker is smart and nice, and none of its homeless are drug-addled or clinically insane. How could a world with such people be in such ruin? Arcand's wish-fulfillment scenario clashes with the occasional outbursts of cruel violence, perhaps added in hopes of enticing crime-flick buffs. The director doesn't make a similar bid for fans of uproarious comedy. Rather than try for laughs, he reaches only for knowing smiles and approving nods. Yet the film's knowledge of everything from Stoic philosophy to money-laundering is refreshing. In most cops-and-robbers dramas, the gendarmes are driven by virtue or vice. Here, one of Pierre-Paul's new mentors informs him, it's because they get to keep 50 percent of any dirty cash they seize.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.