Film Review: The Fall Of The American Empire

Canadian Crime Caper Gets Philosophical By Following The Money

Devin D. O'Leary
6 min read
The Fall of the American Empire
“Let’s go get sushi and not pay!”
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Pity poor Pierre-Paul. He’s an intellectual in an age of idiots. He’s got a PhD in philosophy and is prone to saying things like, “pro sports are the mental illness of politicians.” He delivers extended monologues about the sad state of modern capitalism at the drop of a hat but works as a delivery driver for a courier service because they get paid more than university professors. Heck, the guy can’t even bring himself to tell his girlfriend of a year and a half that he loves her, because, you know … Wittgenstein. Naturally, she breaks up with him. Who could blame her?

But Pierre-Paul (French-Canadian TV actor Alexandre Landry) isn’t such a bad guy, really. He gives money to homeless people, volunteers at a soup kitchen and generally tries to live his life by his own socialist moral standards. One fateful afternoon, while going about his Montreal delivery route and generally feeling sorry for himself, he stumbles across the scene of a robbery gone very bad.

Two young street hoods have attempted to rob a clothing store. The store, however, is more than it seems. It’s a “bank” for local organized crime operations to hide their money, and it’s run by a dangerous former gang member. Pierre-Paul pulls up to the parking lot in front of the store just as the two robbers burst out the front door. A shockingly rapid exchange of gunfire leaves both the robbers and the store managers dead in pools of blood. Pierre-Paul is the only living witness to the crime. With the police sirens wailing in the distance, our protagonist makes his first questionable moral decision. Two overstuffed duffel bags containing uncounted millions of dollars are lying at his feet. On a whim, Pierre-Paul stuffs them into the back of his delivery van and says nothing about them to the detectives who subsequently quiz him.

Has Pierre-Paul just succeeded in committing the perfect crime? As writer-director Denys Arcand’s philosophical crime caper
The Fall of the American Empire posits: Yes and no. Arcand’s résumé (including The Decline of the American Empire, Jesus of Montreal, Love & Human Remains and The Barbarian Invasions) consists of slyly satirical dramas that are highly critical of modern society and its declining moral values. The Fall of the American Empire is no exception. Though it doesn’t go for all-out laughs, it’s hard not to be amused by the situations and characters in this brainy socioeconomic thriller.

Here, Arcand is less concerned with the mechanics of criminal behavior and more interested in the flow of money. What does one do with a sudden windfall of illegal cash? You can’t put it in a bank. You can’t take it out of the country. You can’t even ship it overseas without getting taxed these days. Philosophical delivery boy Pierre-Paul is at something of a loss. He sticks the duffel bags in a storage locker and quietly freaks out. Overhearing a news report about Sylvain “The Brain” Bigras, a notorious accountant/money launderer for some biker gangs who was just let out of jail, Pierre-Paul hunts the guy down and solicits his advice. But The Brain (Rémy Girard from
Jesus of Montreal and The Barbarian Invasions) isn’t in the mood to listen to a bumbling delivery boy’s crazy stories about riches.

Determined to enjoy his newfound luck just a little, the shy and lonely Pierre-Paul goes trolling for escorts online. He finds the website of “Aspasie,” who fancies herself a “courtesan” and borrows her name from a friend of Socrates. Her high-tone résumé is like catnip to the overly educated Pierre-Paul, who soon finds himself shelling out big bucks for the company of the breathtaking Aspasie (Canadian actress-model-talk show host Maripier Morin). Unfortunately, he falls madly in love and tells her all about his outrageous good fortune.

You see, Pierre-Paul doesn’t just want to get away with the money. He wants to do it “morally.” Luckily (and somewhat unrealistically) for him, both Aspasie and Sylvain are soon on board. The trio realize that by pooling all their (somewhat) ill-gotten gains, they could make a rather sizable (and practically legal) investment. Aspasie contacts one of her old clients, a bigwig in Canadian finance, and suddenly our three characters are bankrolling a major financial scheme. But with a couple of detectives and one very angry gangster on their trail, will they live long enough to get away with it?

The most interesting facet to
The Fall of the American Empire is the way in which the central crime gets continually “upsold” from street criminals to organized gangsters to bankers to international financiers. Arcand’s message is crystal clear: It’s the businessmen who are the real criminals in this world and the ones who profit the most off of any criminal enterprise. The only way to beat the system is to become part of it.

Though it lacks the zest of such cinematic crime capers as
The Sting, The Fall of the American Empire manages to be well-paced, engaging and occasionally amusing. There are times, of course, that Arcand pushes a little too hard on his message. He’s got a lot of restless questions—many of them spouted outright by his characters—about social ills, economic injustice and the moral decay of our capitalist society. He may not provide answers to all these questions in this more-bemused-than-angry mixture of popcorn entertainment and NPR editorial. And he may rely a bit on genre clichés and stereotyped characters (the Jamaican gangster, the hooker with the heart of gold, the bumbling detectives). Arcand does, however, provide a unique twist on the formula. By obsessively following the money—practically making it a fourth lead character—he successfully focuses our attention on the one thing that matters. Not the criminals, not the cops, not the semi-innocent people caught in the middle. But the filthy lucre itself. And that, as the film slyly suggests, is the real fall of the American Empire.
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