In 1986, Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand wrote and directed the small, talky The Decline Of The American Empire, about eight university professors who meet for dinner and discuss how sex and politics have changed since their student-radical days. The film recalled the similar arthouse sensations Return Of The Secaucus 7 and My Dinner With Andre, and it extended Arcand's reputation beyond his native Quebec. Since then, the director has worked with a bigger palette in Jesus Of Montreal, Love & Human Remains, and Stardom, all of which engaged modern social ills through illustration as much as through dialogue. Arcand returns to his Decline characters in The Barbarian Invasions, an amusing, facile crowd-pleaser that merges his plotty side and his chatty side. His old cast reunites to rally around smug, promiscuous history professor Rémy Girard, whose terminal cancer has the distinctly movie-friendly effect of making him cuter. Girard's past indiscretions are made to look merely naughty, and his current gripes mark him as a cuddly crank, capable of making his roomful of friends laugh–which they do, until he starts coughing uncontrollably. Arcand filters criticism of everything from the ineptitude of socialized medicine to the dimness of today's students through his lead's sour disposition, and though he scores some points, he never gets as far as he intends in connecting Girard's encroaching cancer with the increasing foulness of the world at large. Even shakier are Arcand's subtle swipes at the U.S., which bottom out in gratuitous footage of the Sept. 11 attacks. The muddled sociopolitical comment only makes The Barbarian Invasions seem snottier than a movie about death and reconciliation needs to be. It doesn't help that Arcand paints his characters broadly, so that all his union members are thugs, all his college students are obnoxiously dull, his drug dealer is oily and effete, and so on. But The Barbarian Invasions' flaws are mainly glaring because the movie is occasionally so winning. Arcand writes sparkling dialogue, shoots keenly, and has a way of cutting to the heart of a tricky situation with minimal mush. His assaults on a decaying society are nowhere near as pointed as his subtle notation of how people determine what kind of time and emotional commitment they owe the dying. In that vein, the most vivid character is Girard's son (Stéphane Rousseau), a technologically savvy millionaire who throws money at his father's problems, coldly calculating what it will take to pay back Girard's love.
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