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When you help the homeless, greed is good

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Director Denys Arcand instructs the cast of ‘The Fall of the American Empire’.
July 17, 2019 11:56 am

French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand probably thinks he did us a favor by couching his social jabs inside the crime caper “The Fall of the American Empire,” his 10th feature as a director. Arcand, who is 78, has the kind of screen currency that can salvage bad scenes and smooth over bad staging, but no degree of reputation can rescue “Empire.”

The screenplay, written by Arcand, is awful. The story, a followup to “The Decline of the American Empire” (1989), is pointless and laughably far-fetched. The movie gets no help from a protagonist that we’re meant to care about even as he makes an endless series of idiotic, self-destructive choices.

Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) has a doctorate in philosophy, but he works as a courier delivery man in Montreal. He blunders into a bank robbery that goes horribly wrong, and two large bags of money are lying in the street. So what does this supposedly intelligent young man do? He grabs the bags, shoves them into the back of his delivery truck and drives off before the police arrive.

Even if you’ve never stolen millions from a heist gone bad, you probably should know that there was more to the robbery than meets the eye. And even if you grab the dough out of some incredible mix of greed and altruism, you might have the smarts to expect the crooks and the cops to be after you.

The script is weak, the premise absurd and the protagonist is a self-pitying dilettante. Arcand has three strikes against him in the first 30 minutes yet he manages to make things worse. The robbery scenes are poorly staged and the shifts in tone are comically unconvincing, as when our hero hires a money launderer just out of prison to be his financial adviser.

“Empire” tries to pull off an overlap between the consequences of the failed heist and deplorable social conditions. But Pierre-Paul is driven by multiple motives, and they’re inconsistent from scene to scene. He is bent on living the good life and hires a beautiful, high-class prostitute named Aspasie (Maripier Morin) to satisfy his sexual needs.

But he also volunteers to help the homeless and wants to do something good with the money. He’d like to put the Montreal police in their place and have a normalized relationship with Aspasie. He breaks up with his loyal but exasperated girlfriend and tries to show genuine feeling for a woman he pays for sex. And the movie frequently grinds to a halt when Pierre-Paul (or somebody) gets on a soapbox about some issue.

Pierre-Paul is such a nebbishy, indistinct personality that he can do or say anything in any scene and have it make some kind of sense, which seldom happens. He isn’t admirable or sympathetic. He gives us no reason to want him to succeed, yet you don’t want to see him fail. He’s a big cipher at the center of a cloddish, fatally overlong movie that has nothing to say and keeps on saying it.