Megalopolis (2024)

Megalopolis Review


Initial release: May 16, 2024
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola
Budget: 120 million USD
Cinematography: Mihai Mălaimare Jr.
Edited by: Cam McLauchlin; Glen Scantlebury

45 years later ‘Apocalypse Now’ won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the director returns with a self-indulgent but profoundly personal allegory about his relationship to art.

Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis” is a long-gestating, career-spanning allegory in which he puts his name above the title and in an act of modesty on behalf of this gaudy, idea-bloated monstrosity the words “A Fable” beneath it. To call this thing a mere fable is to wildly undersell its expansive insight into art and life and legacy; it’s as if Coppola has spent $120 million of his own money (estimated) just to remind us that he’s Francis Ford Coppola. This is the kind of big swing audiences and critics beg him for A huge, recklessly ambitious epic in which greed, corruption, loyalty and power humanity’s eternal themes threaten to crush some more intimate personal crisis; here a conservative politician and a forward-thinking urban designer clash over the future of a mythic city, with unwieldy results.

It’s his fortune; he can spend it how he wants. But apart from anything else suggested by that grandiose title alone, it’s not clear why “Megalopolis” needed so much cash behind it. For the press screening before Thursday night’s Côte d’Azur premiere at Cannes (where “Apocalypse Now” took home the Palme 45 years ago), Coppola insisted they show it on the festival’s only IMAX screen. And yet so much of this film is shot in close-up that it’d play fine on iPhone screens (apart from one bizarre moment when a man walks out, faces our way and reads a few lines into a microphone). The cast is first-rate; hot young stars like Adam Driver and Aubrey Plaza are paired with Coppola veterans Laurence Fishburne and Giancarlo Esposito; their performances are oddly cartoonish. But as one character repeats in the film: “When we leap into the unknown, we prove that we are free.”

While it’s been three decades since Coppola’s last good movie (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), Cannes audiences had fingers crossed he might deliver another “Apocalypse Now.” Turns out world-building that invaluable tool of 21st-century Hollywood franchises may not be his strong suit. Strangely enough, animation (rather than vfx-heavy live action) might have proved a better way of telling such a story, helping to balance a tone that’s Shakespearean at times (including a recitation of Hamlet’s most famous monologue) and downright campy at others (as when a browless Shia LaBeouf quips, “Revenge tastes best while wearing a dress”). Animation would’ve allowed Coppola greater control over a setting meant to synthesize modern New York, ancient Rome and the forests of Pandora — a place where mindless entertainment distracts from what matters.

In certain corners of the real world (China? Saudi Arabia?), leaders have sought to build forward-thinking “smart cities” from scratch. But that’s not how thriving metropolises tend to come into being. They’re built up and burned down; they’re rebuilt and improved in fits and starts; they’re dragged kicking and screaming into modernity — by visionary urban developers like Robert Moses (New York) or Georges-Eugène Haussmann (Paris), who knew best about what people needed before settling on what they wanted. Men like Cesar Catilina, the fictional city planner Driver plays here with all the wild-eyed monomaniacal intensity of Howard Roark (the speechifying architect in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”) doing his damnedest to drag New Rome into the future.

As with slow-growing metropolises, “Megalopolis” can be equally beautiful and ugly until you zoom out and take it all in. Only then do you notice the awkward way old and new ideas jut up against each other, like an art deco skyscraper sandwiched between a cathedral and a Starbucks. The movie starts with Catilina stepping off an upper ledge of the Chrysler Building, at which point he orders time to stop. And it does. There, floating some 70 stories above the streets of New Rome, he takes a page not from Plutarch (who chronicled the Catilinarian conspiracy that loosely inspired Coppola), but from the Wachowskis. This time-freezing “Matrix” move which immediately follows a Laurence Fishburne-narrated scene-setter suggests something far more fantastical than what follows.

“Megalopolis” is not so much a sci-fi movie, as some have reported, as it is a sexless “Caligula,” transposed to New Rome. As photographed by Mihai Malaimare Jr., this sleek neo-noir/neo-classical city looks like modern-day Manhattan, except that men sport bowl cuts and women wear see-through robes. Their toga-like garments are made either of gauze or an innovative, all-purpose building material called Megalon, discovered by Catilina and central to his scheme to revamp the city. In this, he is opposed by “slumlord”-turned-mayor Franklyn Cicero (Esposito). The two first have it out at a high-concept press conference, where most of the film’s key figures including Jon Voight as obscenely rich oligarch Hamilton Crassus III and Plaza as manipulative TV personality Wow Platinum navigate catwalks dangling amid a scale model of the city. Franklyn plans to erect a casino, whereas Catilina wants to create “a perfect school-city for its people, able to grow along with it.”

To make these competing visions more interesting, Coppola introduces Franklyn’s adult daughter, Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), an overexposed party girl who gets serious after witnessing Catilina “pause” a building demolition. (Coppola hatched the idea for the film decades ago, but abandoned an earlier plan to make it after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.) Much of the film’s iconography and worldview seem frozen in time, just before and after the 2001 tragedy. What might have felt “too soon” for that moment now feels exasperatingly out of step with today’s concerns, despite a handful of references to Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 riots (including an angry mob seen waving a Confederate flag).

Cicero is not happy that his daughter has sided with Catilina on the redevelopment deal. He becomes even more irritated when Julia falls in love with his enemy, a former DA whom Cicero once prosecuted for the murder of his still-unsolved wife. This subplot gives some shade to Catilina’s otherwise noble-seeming character. At times, it feels like Coppola has projected himself onto both Cicero (whose first name, Franklyn, derives from “Francis”) and Catilina (the artist-architect whose ambitions echo the director’s ill-fated Zoetrope Studios project “One From the Heart”). For the former, family matters as they clearly do for Coppola while redemption through fidelity and renouncing one’s “bad boy” ways represents part of Catilina’s journey. Their power struggle is no “Succession,” though the movie does plumb what makes such time-stoppers tick. “When we ask these questions, when we have a dialogue about them, that basically is utopia,” says Catilina.

At certain points in his “fable,” Coppola injects bawdy and outrageous moments that keep this often-sentimental tale from growing too high on its own supply. Plaza and LaBeouf bring a satirical edge to their scenes together, which reminds one of Richard Kelly casting comic actors alongside outside-the-box celebrities (like Dwayne Johnson and Justin Timberlake) to heighten the absurdity in Cannes dud “Southland Tales.” By contrast, most of Coppola’s ensemble features “serious” actors, which gives everything a stilted, almost theatrical quality; angst-meister Driver taps into those deep wells of internal torment he brought to the “Star Wars” movies. When Catilina steps out onto a giant clock face floating high above New Rome, fuming about all the things standing in his way as the hands tick closer to midnight, he looks not unlike the sulky Kylo Ren.

And yet, save for Megalon (which sounds suspiciously like James Cameron’s laughable “Unobtanium”), the sci-fi elements aren’t far from reality here. At one point, a character references a Soviet satellite dumping radioactive debris on the city and though Coppola shows such a shower, no further mention is made of the disaster. Maybe they couldn’t afford it; likewise, we never devote any screen time to the construction of Catilina’s elaborate urban development project, though Coppola certainly doesn’t seem to have spared any expense. Take the wedding scene alone: It couldn’t be more different from “The Godfather.” This one transforms Madison Square Garden into a decadent Roman arena, swinging between “Ben-Hur”-style chariot races and a Taylor Swift-sounding original song from Grace VanderWaal, “My Pledge.”

A lot of movies set in big cities have been told from the bottom up. This was Sidney Lumet’s territory, while Coppola hauled us to the very top of a skyscraper or looked out from floating I-beams at the twinkling horizon, where it’s magic hour all day long. The guy made four masterpieces “The Godfather,” “The Conversation,” “The Godfather Part II” and “Apocalypse Now” and then he went off and became a zillionaire with his wineries. He has seen the world from Park Avenue penthouses, rubbed elbows with kings (and criminals), made unforgivable mistakes along the way. Most peculiarly, however, after amassing more money than any filmmaker could ever dream of retiring with, Coppola has chosen to share this message/motto/atonement act: “Megalopolis” is no snooze, and though not everything works as planned (a slight understatement), this is exactly the kind of late-in-the-game mea culpa that true fans were hoping for from their favorite audacious risk-taker who never lost faith in cinema’s power to change hearts and minds. Having said that: Now that he’s built it? Will they come?

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