Megalopolis review: A magical, meandering, maddening epic

Francis Ford Coppola’s cri de coeur to a dying empire is batshit crazy

Megalopolis review: A magical, meandering, maddening epic
Megalopolis Image: Caesar Film LLC

There are times when this whole film critic gig feels paltry, when writing a few hundred words moments after a decade of toil, tens of millions of dollars from a personal fortune, and the hours and talents of hundreds of performers and craftspeople have all gathered to bring the singular vision of an irascible yet immensely successful auteur to the screen. Can one wonder at the grandeur of it all while still finding the resulting monstrosity a mix of overwhelming and tacky? Is this a masterwork, or the half-baked political philosophy of a late career iconoclast—one both raging at the dying light, yet finding hope in the furtive, feeble movements of a new generation?

And so is birthed Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis, a cri de coeur to a dying empire and to late-capitalist excess. This is a tale about a flailing American society mirrored by metaversal meanderings born of string theory, mashed-up with end-of-Republic Roman machinations just to provide a bit of operatic spice. It is, in a few words, batshit insane.

Having studiously avoided every summary, trailer, and even casting announcement, I went into Megalopolis about as blind as one can be (Adam Driver the only cast member that somehow I had associated with the carryings on). Thus there was a perhaps unique joy when performer after performer entered the proscenium, with the likes of Giancarlo Esposito, Aubrey Plaza, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Voight, Jason Schwartzman, Kathryn Hunter, and Dustin Hoffman. They play Caesars and Ciceros and Crassi, ripping through rhetoric, romance and revenge with abandon.

Their various roles play as a mind-boggling mix of archetypal icons and half-realized caricatures, with each player seemingly given a different version of the script that either emphasizes the bold humor or self-seriousness of their roles. There is the usual incestual interconnection in such stories drawn from Roman romances and operas, but there is also a large dose of afternoon soap-like ribaldry. You have some of the finest actors of multiple generations, many with Oscars and other plaudits, gathering together for something like drunken community theater, or maybe even like catching someone doing a Shakespeare soliloquy while entertaining at a karaoke bar.

Megalopolis can feel almost as if HBO’s Rome was rewritten by a thousand monkeys, some of them even getting their spelling correct. At times, Megalopolis plays with a pompous grandiosity, at others pure camp, echoing the likes of equally divisive recent films like Beau Is Not Afraid or, especially, Babylon. And yet for all the chaotic evil charm of both those films, they were, perhaps implausibly, the result of studio productions, their excesses mostly intact but still with some of the corners filed off for an audience’s benefit. The pure, unfiltered artistic integrity of Megalopolis reminds less of Roman tales than of Greek ones that evoke hubris and irony, which will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that’s paid attention to Coppola’s inimitable career.

Hearts Of Darkness, the superlative Apocalypse Now making-of that used Eleanor Coppola’s footage and remembrances, showed Francis as a director well past the point of nervous breakdown. Supposedly the sparks for Megalopolis date back to this era, and there’s certainly a malarial feeling to how it all unfolds, as if we are once again going on a cruise upriver to regions unknown. After four decades of false starts, Coppola pledged a personal fortune and assembled his fine cast, and then unleashed it in competition here at the same Cannes Film Festival where his prior apocalyptic vision debuted all those years ago.

The resulting tale of family relations, political machinations, postponed pregnancies and the slipping away of time makes it nearly impossible to see Megalopolis as anything other than the reflections of a filmmaker in his mid-80s, in all his pessimism and optimism, in his somber heavy-handedness and in his silly slapstick. Midway through this particular vision, there is a spectacular smashing of the theatrical fourth wall, with the same flourish that Megalopolis’ architect rebuilds his metaverse-New York. I was either witnessing the greatest moment of cinema I’d seen, the most ridiculous, or an intoxicating blend of clever and stupid that, during a post-festival run, may never be repeated.

Perhaps it’s this melting-pot of moods, ideas and passions that makes the American metaphor at the heart of Megalopolis that much more redolent, capturing through this shotgun of style the impossible-to-constrain experiment of Coppola’s country. Even the chiseled-in-marble titles feel at once silly and stentorian, quoting Plutarch with the grace of a Hallmark card, and living out Plato’s profundities with the grace of a Wikipedia-based middle school book report.

Megalopolis doesn’t exhibit that common curse of thinking it’s smarter than it is, but I’m also not sure that it’ll live up to even the most cursory of deeper examinations. There are audiences that will be giddy for its insanity, others angered by a seeming waste of pure directorial talent. But for the vast majority of the cinematic hoi polloi, there will be that most cursed of reactions: indifference. Megalopolis is not a film to be seen while doom-scrolling. A great deal of its joy will be to see it in a room, as I did, with the energy of an audience growing increasingly perturbed by what they were witnessing.

And yet, the audience was engaged, perhaps a bit shocked, and maybe even aroused, exhibiting the same primal drive that makes some people gawk at car accidents on the side of the road. To say whether I “liked” Megalopolis does its endeavors injustice, but to ignore the fact that it seems deeply nonsensical and in desperate need of some outside perspective to reshape it in slightly more agreeable ways would be unfair.

Megalopolis is a magical, meandering, maddening construction, one that demonstrates that the process of experimentation is in and of itself both deeply entwined with, as well as above, dualistic notions like success and failure. I come here not to bury this tale of Caesar, nor necessarily to praise it, but to applaud its ambition—to revel in its very existence. “The gates of Megalopolis are open, and the world will never be the same,” we are promised, and this sublime, sanctimonious, and supercilious blend is the perfect summation of Coppola’s latest production. Who is to say if the edifice will stand? I for one am happy it at least had the chutzpah to be built in the first place.

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