‘Megalopolis’ Review: Francis Ford Coppola’s Epic Sprawl Is Grandiose and Goofy

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Well before he shot “Megalopolis,” Francis Ford Coppola spoke of his central concern. “I’d like this one question to be discussed,” Coppola told GQ in 2022. “Is the society we live in the only one available to us?” He shared the same sentiment, spoken in the same words, in a statement he gave to Vanity Fair last month, and, to hammer the point, he has his main character repeat the line verbatim at a pivotal moment in the film.

The scene arrives at the midway mark of Coppola’s goofy and grandiose new project, as a live performer emerges from the audience to shout questions at a Coppola-analogue giving a press conference on screen.

The scene is a snapshot of “Megalopolis” writ-large. This is a project of operatic pronouncements, didactic repetitions and sprawling artistic ambitions – quite a few realized, just as many not – that makes little compromise for more earthbound worries. To viewers, beginning with the Cannes Film Festival audiences who saw the film for the first time on Thursday, and to exhibitors eyeing a $120 million project that’s on the Croisette looking for distribution, consider this your caveat emptor.

That analogue, by the way, is the Shakespeare-quoting, Nobel Prize-winning playboy architect Cesar Catalina (Adam Driver), whose ability to control the flow of time leaves little ambiguity as to the filmmaking metaphor. But then, Cesar is just one of many proxies in a film whose full title card reads “Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis: A Fable.”

There is also patriarch Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voight), an affluent Master of the Universe sitting atop a family empire of like-minded progeny, obsessed with his legacy though in no way ready to slow down. And here comes Mayor Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), the chief exec of New Rome City with a taste for the classics and a penchant for tradition over progress. At work, he goes by hizzoner, while his kin call him by his given name … Francis.

So Coppola is clearly Working Stuff Out, dipping into his own Crassus-like fortune to dramatize that inner conflict in expressionistic, digital visuals that evoke a live-action cartoon.

But if Coppola’s screenplay tracks the push-and-pull of moving on or staying put – as embodied by Driver’s modernist dreamer and Esposito’s pragmatic administrator who both, in their own way, want to slow the lurch of time – the film itself falls decisively into one camp, succeeding more as a piece of digital art than as a satisfying yarn.

At its best, “Megalopolis” feels like a live-action anime, closely following the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer” as it collapses screen space into a pixelated spectacle, leaving any notion of physics in the dust.

At its worst, the film also feels like a live-action anime, worked-over and poorly dubbed, full of halting speeches and expository drops growing ever more dramatically inert.

Running 138 minutes and striving for an epic sprawl, “Megalopolis” moves at a surprisingly hiccupping pace, never lingering in any one moment nor developing a sense of inner rhythm. Scenes break instead of build, with each interaction designed to impart this or that philosophical concept or political theory the director spent the past four decades compiling. But because the operatic film is so clearly intended as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk – a total, all encompassing work – the odd lack of balance and the disparity between the artist’s intentions and execution become all the more acute.

As quickly becomes clear, the filmmaker sought to marry his kaleidoscopic embellishments in screen space and editing patterns with a more traditional form, imaging “Megalopolis” as the kind of novelistic American Family Saga once perfected by one Francis Ford Coppola.

We follow Robert Moses-like architect Cesar who wants to rebuild his crumbling metropolis using a new element he himself discovered (and for which he won the Nobel Prize; humility has rarely been a tool in Coppola’s kit). Cesar is part of an aristocratic clan run by his patrician uncle, Crassus (Voight), and filled with the familiar likes of Talia Shire and Jason Schwartzman alongside others, presumably less common to the family table, like Chloe Fineman and Shia LaBeouf. The Crassii sit atop a world-spanning empire imagined as a Rome that never fell, and though they are its undisputed masters, day-to-day governance falls to Mayor Cicero.

Urban policy only scratches the surface of Cesar and Cicero’s enmity, as the D.A.-turned-mayor previously tried to pin Cesar for matricide, while the widower-architect responded by starting a relationship with Hizzoner’s party-girl daughter Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel).

Incident rich if poor in actual intrigue, “Megalopolis” binges plot-points like Skittles, finding random asides about deepfakes, taking satirical aim at contemporary pop stardom and condemning the rise of modern political populism in no uncertain terms.

If you were wondering what Coppola might have felt about January 6, a stump speech given on a literal tree stump carved into a swastika will clear that question rather quickly.

To be fair, that weightlessness is no doubt by design, used as way to compress as much visual information as possible into the director’s larger substitution game of finding as many modern and often surprising comparisons to rituals from Antiquity as possible. There’s fun to be had watching marble statues break down in tears, or connecting Caligulan excess with ’90s club-kids like Michael Alig, though the most fun of all arrives thanks MVP Aubrey Plaza.

Taking an urban Jezebel named “Wow Platinum” as invitation to unleash her inner high empress of camp, Plaza immediately intuits the inherent goofiness of this whole affair and takes over the film every time she comes on screen, her affect hilariously evolving from Maria Bartiroma to silent-film vamp Theda Bara with each successive appearance.

After four decades in the making, “Megalopolis” plays as a frustrating and paradoxical affair.  The film is expertly assembled and sleepily directed all at once; it wows with its imagination and erudition all while leaving you little more than bemused.

Still, in the hours since the Cannes screening let out, one couldn’t help but feel impressed at this messy film’s mad ambition. Once the initial confusion fades one feels an odd pull to take the plunge again. In that same 2022 GQ interview, Coppola hoped viewers would return “Megalopolis” year after year. God help him, he may very well be proven correct.

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