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Left to right: Alexandre Landry as Pierre-Paul Daoust, Maripier Morin as Aspasie/Camille Lafontaine. Photo by Jaime Eduardo Urrutia Acuna, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Despite the title, writer/director Denys Arcand’s film is actually a French Canadian satiric crime thriller/comedy about a delivery driver with a PhD in philosophy who finds himself in an ethical dilemma when a bag of stolen loot literally falls at his feet. But then again, maybe it is about the fall of the American empire, as income inequality and the fuzzy boundary between international high finance and high crimes are at the core of this social satire.

The title follows those of Arcand’s previous films, THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE and BARBARIANS AT THE GATE, but while those films focused on the same group of academics, this one starts anew with a new group of characters. At the center is a young French Canadian philosopher working for a UPS-like delivery company, who is trapped in a dead-end job by an economy where money trumps brains. Arcand’s sly mix of comedy and serious social commentary blends elements of crime thriller, police procedural, and romantic comedy in a surprising twist tale of ethical dilemmas, income inequality, homelessness, and the overlap of criminal money laundering and high-powered finance. It is a funny, thoughtful and even sweet bit of fantasy with a serious point underneath.

Set in Montreal and primarily in French with some English, this Canadian satire opens on a down note, with the truck driving philosopher Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry) haranguing his bank teller girlfriend Linda (Florence Longre) about his dim financial prospects in the modern economy. Saying the present system favors salesmanship over intelligence, he argues that intelligence is actually a liability, in system where the ability to sell means idiots rise to CEO while he is more likely to be fired for lacking an ability to trick people into buying. She tries to challenge his arguments but he counters by talking about the failings of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Trump’s election comes up and he say, “idiots love cretins.” Frustrated by his dim view of life, she breaks up with him.

Despite that dim view and his dead-end job, Pierre-Paul is a generous, ethical guy who enjoys volunteering at community center serving meals to the homeless. While on a delivery run to a strip mall clothing store, named Hollywood, Pierre-Paul arrives at the tail end of a robbery gone wrong. Turns out the shop is a front for a money laundering operation, and as Pierre-Paul pulls up, a security man and a robber lie dead and the surviving wounded robber Jacmel (Patrick Albellard) staggers past, dropping his bag of money nearly at the stunned delivery man’s feet Pierre-Paul wavers briefly , then picks up the loot and stashes it in his van, moments before the police arrive. With both the police and the crooks circling around him, Pierre-Paul has to figure out what to do next.

The plot takes some crazy turns, and brings in an newly-released ex-con named Sylvain “The Brain” Bigras (Remy Girard) who studied finance in prison, a high-priced call girl using a name from Socrates, Aspasie (Maripier Morin), and a wealthy, politically-connected investment counselor Wilbrod Taschereau (Pierre Curzi) adept at tax evasion. They are joined by a pair of relentless detectives (Louis Morissette and Maxim Roy) trying to figure it all out and the gangsters whose money has gone missing. From its grim, dark start, the film picks up steam as it takes on more crime comedy tropes. But those looking for THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE to break out into full-blown, absurdist comedy will be disappointed, as the writer/director continues to straddle genres throughout the film. His social commentary is remains subtle rather than overt, and he returns to the character’s ethical dilemma, and his concerns for the homeless and dispossessed, throughout.

The fine performances are key in this film, as part of the director’s plan is to get viewers to look beyond surface appearances, Especially good are Alexandre Landry as Pierre-Paul and Maripier Morin as call girl Aspasie. Other strong performances come from Remy Girard as ex-con Sylvain and, Maxim Roy as policewoman Carla McDuff but all the characters get their chance to surprise us.

This is not a film for everyone. It never breaks out into rollicking comedy or wild-ride crime thrills, although it has moments of both. Instead, it is a thoughtful, good-hearted film full of unexpected turns, that has something in particular to say and it says it in a gentler, subtler way than most social satires might. While the characters are sometime based in genre types, like the hooker with the heart of gold, the director brings out their humanity and individuality, which gives the film a surprising sweetness and warmth. The far-fetched plot puts the film firmly in the realm of fantasy but the human warmth and the filmmaker’s thoughtful, gentle observations about society and those left out give it a depth and resonance one does not expect when the film starts out.

THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE, in English and French with English subtitles, opens Friday, June 28, at Plaza Frontenac Cinema

RATING: 4 out of 4 stars

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