THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE – Review by Diane Carson

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There’s good and bad news about Canadian director Denys Arcand’s The Fall of the American Empire. First, the positive. The opening scene establishes Montreal deliveryman Pierre-Paul’s impressive philosophical and literary knowledge, rare content for a plot-driven theft film. Despite Pierre-Paul’s self-congratulatory pronouncements, it’s fun to hear Pierre-Paul and his soon to be ex-girlfriend bank teller summarize their life’s expectations.

He asserts he’s too intelligent to ever get rich, categorically dismissing several famous writers and philosophers including Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Wittgenstein and Marcus Aurelius. Then fate and temptation intervene through an interrupted robbery. Pierre-Paul, not so wisely, thinks he can get away with grabbing two dropped duffel bags of money. No more plot here because among the pleasures are unanticipated developments involving a just-released convict with a degree in financial management, a pair of police detectives, a high-priced escort, and vicious mob men identified as Irish and Jewish.

It’s here that unimaginative and offensive stereotypes reside, despite politically positive (though abbreviated) nods to the homeless, especially indigenous men and women. The majority of the villains, including the robbers, are black while all of the law-abiding individuals are white. Moreover, one of the top black criminals expresses ludicrous superstitious belief in an amulet’s ability to protect him.

Equally offensive, the expensive call girl is the clichéd whore with a heart of gold, sweet and responsive to a dullard like Pierre-Paul. Assuming writer/director Arcand intends a critique of such racist/sexist representation, he needs to sharpen his aim. He’s more on target skewering money’s corrupting influence. In fact, the film’s original title, Triumph of Money, explains the significance of its release as The Fall of the American Empire, indicting U.S. societal failures.

Technically, cinematographer Van Royko nicely frames shots and editor Arthur Tarnowski lingers enjoyably on reaction shots. Even at a slightly too long two hours plus, the well-acted, unconventional (albeit flawed) escapade has more on its mind than most heist films. I wish it had more effectively presented its arguments.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.