Montreal resident Pierre-Paul Daoust (played by Alexandre Landry), a mild-mannered van-driving courier, is a glaring example of the overqualified underachiever. His Ph.D. in philosophy helps equip him with a steady stream of homemade aphorisms (example: “Pro sports are the mental illness of politicians”), but the degree is no help at all with the thirty-something single man’s sex life. He tends to philosophize to his friends about capitalist injustices, and even acts on his principles by volunteering at a soup kitchen for the homeless, but he’s stuck in the slow lane with a flat tire.
That all changes one day when he pulls his van into a strip mall parking lot just as a botched armed robbery is boiling over. Bullets fly, bodies fall, and when the shooting stops Pierre-Paul is left alone with a preposterously large amount of cash in duffel bags, and no witnesses. Welcome to The Fall of the American Empire, the latest satirical comedy from Quebec’s Denys Arcand, the politically minded maker of The Barbarian Invasions, Jesus of Montreal, and other wry commentaries on modern life north of the border.
True to his Dilbert-like nature, Pierre-Paul finds a way to turn his windfall into a comic nightmare. What his predicament has to do with the “American empire” of the film’s title is probably a matter of poetic justice on Arcand’s part — as if the connection between crime and violence in the U.S. and underworld mayhem in Montreal is understood to be a ready-made component of Canadian life, a natural resource on the order of maple syrup, ice hockey, and the late Leonard Cohen. Be that as it may, our bookish hero struggles to fit into the outlaw’s life.
We tick off Pierre-Paul’s mistakes, one by one. First, to celebrate his new wealth he hires the most expensive escort in town, Camille (Maripier Morin), but doesn’t quite know what to do with her. For advice on how to lay off the red-hot swag, he seeks out a notorious Montreal hood named Sylvain “The Brain” (Rémy Girard), who is studying business administration now that he’s out of prison. The Brain and the now-terrified Pierre-Paul decide to hide the cash in a storage locker. Ouch.
Other crooks smell the money and enter the picture. Turns out the robbed retail shop was really a “bank” to launder underworld cash, and now the gangster/banker in charge (Eddy King) and other interested parties — including the goon who tried to rob the bank in the first place (Patrick Abellard) — want their money back. Also, Montreal police detective McDuff (Maxim Roy) is asking questions. As if things aren’t already confused enough, a high-level financial fixer with the wonderful name of Wilbrod Taschereau (Pierre Curzi) is brought in for counsel — largely because he’s an ex-customer of Camille.
The moral of the story is: Leave crime to the professionals. As Pierre-Paul and his new friends scurry around feverishly trying to keep from being killed, we begin to wonder if this is going to be one of those American-style crime pics in which the lovable loser in the lead role manages to get away with the money and the girl, against all logic. Or do French-Canadian filmmakers subscribe to the European idea that a protagonist can conceivably die in the last reel, due to poor choices? And how about Camille, the high-priced prostitute with the heart of gold — isn’t she a tired cliché? Director Arcand once made a marital infidelity drama, also set in Québec, called The Decline of the American Empire, so we know he’s not afraid to make fun of Canada’s troublesome big neighbor on the slightest of pretexts, or no pretext at all. Better to just relax and enjoy the chase, and not worry about things like coincidence, realism, or thematic poli-sci subtexts. As Camille declares at the height of the action: “Let’s not talk about what can’t be explained.” The Fall of the American Empire is light summer fun with gunfire, nothing to get too riled up about.