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The Decline of the American Empire (November 16/03)

The Decline of the American Empire concerns itself with the conversations of several intellectual characters, yet writer/director Denys Arcand never allows the film to turn into an overblown bore. Though his characters' discussions often include things of a pompous nature - such as centuries old paintings and the theories of a philosophical nature - Arcand keeps his screenplay grounded in core issues that everyone can relate to, mostly having to do with relationships.

The movie transpires mostly over the course of one day, as a group of men and women prepare for a dinner party. The women spend their time working out at an exercise facility, while the men are busy getting the meal ready. The film cuts between the two sexes as they talk about a variety of subjects, with the topic of sex the most prominent. Finally, the big supper arrives and more conversation ensues.

There's very little plot in The Decline of the American Empire - in fact, there's none - but when the dialogue is this good and the characters this compelling, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Arcand does a fantastic job of establishing these folks to the point where we really feel like we know them, although we may not like them. These aren't just cookie-cutter characters; they look and speak like normal people, albeit normal people with over-active sex drives.

Though the lack of story eventually becomes a little too apparent, the film is never boring and doesn't overstay it's welcome. Just when Arcand's script threatens to drown us with words, the film will oftentimes cut to a flashback. These flashbacks are used to flesh out the characters, discover certain events in their past, and generally allow us to get know these people a whole lot better.

Arcand's assembled a stellar cast, filled with performers that inhabit their roles with effortless ease. None of the actors seem as though they've been shoe-horned into an inappropriate part, and they're all proven to be quite adept in delivering Arcand's ample dialogue. Though there are many references to obscure philosophers and historical figures, the film never feels pretentious - primarily because of the naturalistic performances.

The Decline of the American Empire opens with an impressive tracking shot through a long hallway, and contains a number of similarly eye-catching stylistic touches. It's a film that probably won't appeal to younger viewers, primarily because it features adults talking about grown-up things. And for that alone, the movie deserves recognition.

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