Much has changed in the decades since the French Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand first cast a satiric eye on Western Civilization, especially its North American practitioners, in chatty, thoughtful films such as “The Decline of the American Empire,” “Jesus of Montreal” and “Barbarian Invasions.”
The history we know about and are living through. And Arcand? He’s gone from chatty to long-winded in his late 70s.
“The Fall of the American Empire” has another French Canadian philosopher bemoaning how out of place thinkers are in the modern age, scoring clever points about what’s troubling about Canada and what “destroyed” — emphasis on the past tense — The United States.
It’s the value system that emphasized money over all, something of a running thread through Arcand’s work, that displaces men like deliveryman Pierre Paul (Alexandre Landry). He is, he tells his longtime banker-girlfriend (Florence Longpré), “too intelligent” for most jobs in modern life.
“It’s a handicap,” he says, dismissing whole classes of very smart people which she brings up to counter him.
“The great writers were dumb as mules,” he declares. Hemingway thought he could box, for starters. He rattles down a list of authors and their foibles.
And don’t get him started on politicians. Bush, Blair, Sakozy — Pierre Paul charts the decline in thinking, morality and the intelligence of public life through the lot of them.
“Imbeciles worship cretins!”
Pierre Paul quotes philosophers (also flawed, he notes) by the dozen in an enervated despair. When Linda questions their relationship and says “I can’t go on,” there’s not a hint of shock, heartbreak or meanness in his curt reply.
Writer-director Arcand will test this too-smart-for-this-world misanthrope by hurling him into the conventions of a hoary, dope-who-comes-into-money thriller.
Pierre Paul drives his express delivery truck into the middle of an armed robbery. The money is plainly dirty, which puts Pierre Paul on the horns of a dilemma as the robbers, and the folks they’re robbing, kill each other or flee, wounded.
Bags of money are dropped at his feet. And on an impulse, this moral man in an amoral world does what people always do in such tales. He grabs those bags.
In short order, Mr. “Too Intelligent” is making every idiotic blunder we’ve ever seen in a “Nobody knows I have stolen dirty money” thriller. One of them is hiring, online, the most expensive hooker in Montréal (Maripier Morin) just because she quotes Racine and Aristotle on her website, and in the assumed name she takes on — Aspasie.
Another blunder? He instantly falls for this outlaw woman who arrives at their appointments in a bodyguard (not pimp) driven Jaguar.
And thirdly, the first person he seeks advice about his newfound stash is a famous criminal (Rémy Girard of “The Barbarian Invasions,””Jesus of Montréal” and “The Decline of the American Empire”). Yeah, tell a money launderer, fresh out of prison (where he was on college-work release, studying tax evasion) your ENTIRE story, and trust him to help you hide the money.
“Too intelligent” to ever go to the movies. Apparently.
There are mobsters in search of the cash, willing to gruesomely torture the one surviving and on the lam robber (Patrick Abellard). And the cops (Louis Morissette, Maxim Roy) are onto the hapless Pierre Paul in a flash.
He doesn’t even have the presence of mind to know his rights, blow off their blunt accusations and keep them from simply barging into his apartment.
Arcand gives Pierre Paul a righteous avocation. He connects with the West’s soaring population of homeless people, volunteering in a soup kitchen, listening to the stories of the displaced workers and Inuit who live on Montréal’s streets, handing out cash when he can.
The writer-director scores points on the broken capitalist system with Pierre Paul’s mild-mannered diatribes and in college lectures, where we’re reminded that “money has its own language,” that “poor people need the money, but corporations (and the super -rich) get all the handouts”
But “The Fall of the American Empire” may be the most sloppily plotted thriller to come along in decades. Why? Because Arcand would rather score his meek satiric points than sweat the details.
It’s great seeing very good actors we recognize, in the dim recesses of memory, from his earlier films. But we can’t help but notice this one is almost half an hour longer than the others.
And hell — who watches “The Decline of the American Empire,” “The Barbarian Invasions” (a post 9-11 summation of the state of the world) or “Jesus of Montréal” any more?
It’s not so much that they aren’t “holding up,” as we say. They may be prophetic, in a lot of their discourse and debate (in French, with English subtitles). But they were achingly of their time.
Arcand wastes too much of our time with this stumbling, dry, unfunny satire of thrillers, money and how to launder it. If you thought Netflix’s “Ozark” was long…
The filmmaker literally loses himself in the arcane “Panama Papers” business of how money is shuffled around, off-shore, or swapped out among the ranks of those eager to avoid taxes and hasten the end of Western Civilization as they do.
And like many a first-time filmmaker, his veteran of a half century of film can’t figure out when to drop the mike, how to extract himself from the talky-tangle he’s chatted his characters into.
“Fall of the American Empire” isn’t an awful film, and it probably will prove as prophetic as “Decline of the American Empire.” But it never lets you forget that its filmmaker identifies too closely with his hero, that he’s “too intelligent” to make a thriller, or bother with getting one right.
And in so-doing, his blunders are just as obvious as Pierre Paul’s.
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence, sexual content/nudity and language
Cast: Alexandre Landy, Maripier Morin, Rémy Girard , Florence Longpré, Louis Morissette, Pierre Curzi, Maxim Roy
Credits: Written and directed by Denys Arcand. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 2:07