The gifted Quebecois writer-director Denys Arcand has only himself to blame for the slight feeling of disappointment that his new film engenders. The man who gave us such provocative films as Jesus of Montreal, The Decline of the American Empire, Stardom, and the beguiling Oscar-winner The Barbarian Invasions has nothing to apologize for. The worst thing I can say about his new release The Fall of the American Empire is that it feels inconsequential alongside his other work. But then, as the great Ernst Lubitsch once remarked, it can be said of a mediocre talent that he always lives up to his potential.
Not that The Fall of the American Empire is mediocre; far from it. In fact, it’s an entertaining, surprisingly lighthearted satire that illustrates the power that money has to corrupt anyone—even a highly ethical character. Alexandre Landry plays an arrogant, intelligent man (just ask him) who has deliberately chosen to work as a messenger. He chances to be on the scene when a robbery goes wrong and, without a moment’s hesitation, absconds with a duffel bag stuffed with cash—lots of cash. The only question is how best to use it, knowing that it can open doors and change the course of his life.
This involves an ever-growing cast of characters who operate at a level of financial sophistication Landry has never encountered before, from a high-level hooker to a world-class wizard at executing “invisible” transactions. This is one of those stories where we wind up rooting for the outlaw instead of the cops who are hot on his trail, a time-worn but sure-fire storytelling ploy.
The Fall of the American Empire is enjoyable if not terribly believable, and manages to take potshots at the dumbing-down of our society while spinning its fanciful tale. That’s Arcand at his best, and if he’s coasting a bit with this trifle I’m not going to complain.