The Fall of the American Empire Review: Toothless Capitalist Satire

The Fall of the American Empire "The Fall of the American Empire." (Sony Pictures Classics)

Denys Arcand’s droll French caper comedy leans a little too hard on cliche and creaky anti-capitalist screeds.

“The wealthy generally elude justice,” a bigwig says towards the end of Denys Arcand’s latest, and it’s at that point that the film finally sighs out its central—and most obvious—conceit. It doesn’t do it through showing. It, just like the 105 minutes beforehand, tells instead. Just like the rest of it, it preaches rather than practices. Am I supposed to be conflicted here, or am I supposed to just be happy that The Fall of the American Empire reinforces what I already know?

Something tells me that it’s the latter, what with the on-the-nose rants and obligatory references to Donald Trump less than three minutes in. Most of this comes courtesy of Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry), a bespectacled Montreal delivery guy who either oozes a.) awkwardness or b.) socialism. It might be a pretty decent way to get through to its target audience since they—myself included—are pretty damn similar, but must the movie’s ethics be this predetermined?

Fall’s black-and-white core makes for an inherently tricky rope to walk: either say nothing new and hopefully please the initiated, or say too much and drive away the unconverted. Here, Arcand settles on the former (and safer) option. That means some amusing set pieces and a few lines of clever dialogue that make what should be a scathing polemic feel more like a gentle nudge to the left. The biggest difference here is that it involves a caper, and even with that on its side, the picture is too passive to work.

Said caper involves Pierre-Paul happening upon a heist while on the job. There are two bags of money, several bandits from different gangs, and millions of dollars. What does he do first? He hires an escort named Camille (Maripier Morin), of course, which only implicates her once the police show up. While a plethora of crooks tries to find the cash, the pair makes the acquaintance of a gold-hearted biker known as “The Brain” (Rémy Girard) and figure out what to do with their bounty.

If it feels like everyone’s a tool in a script instead of an engaging person, that’s because that’s the case.

All the characters are pretty cut-and-dry, each with a contradiction and a decent performance to slightly push them. It doesn’t work, but the cast tries, with Landry cushioning his stultifyingly preachy lines in wavering deadpan. Morin never lets go of the logic driving her character, even if Arcand writes the role as lacking in momentum or purpose. But hey, at least she gets to show her own background; a majority of The Brain’s characteristics rely on people churning out exposition. (The only reason it’s clear he’s a biker is that everyone keeps mentioning it.)

If it feels like everyone’s a tool in a script instead of an engaging person, that’s because that’s the case. So much of Arcand’s script tells rather than shows, and what the final product does show isn’t much to remember. Cinematographer Van Royko shoots the picture in bland, hyper-clean hues, often without much relationship to the camera here. It’s never bad, but it’s so devoid of personality that the rhetoric doesn’t have much to fall back on.

It’s odd, too. As The Fall of the American Empire gets to its final half hour, it tries to switch from screwball to serpentine, making the first 95 minutes feel as if they relied on contrivances instead of self-effacement all along. The most ambitious parts here aren’t in the first half, and they certainly aren’t in regards to pace or technical craft. They’re ideas, and they’re all within the final stretch of the movie.

It’s when the simple “capitalism bad!” writing actually branches into a larger context that Fall has something going for it. It’s when Arcand hones in not just on his satire but also on a sense of scope, and it’s when the film develops some sort of immediacy. It’s a shame that immediacy is buried in 127 minutes of charlatan chitchat. Who knows? Maybe it’ll have a better effect on people outside of the target audience. I doubt it’ll convince many capitalists out there, but maybe it’ll push their buttons. That’s something, huh?

The Fall of the American Empire is currently playing in select theaters.

The Fall of the American Empire Trailer:

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