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'Megalopolis' Review

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May 30, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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Megalopolis premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking US distribution and will receive an IMAX release in the fall.

Megalopolis is the most fascinating film I’ve ever watched, a glorious triumph of the creative spirit and a catastrophic failure in the execution of it. It’s a Jenga tower forty years in the making, each block brimming with an idea that’s been born, reshaped, killed, and reborn several times over to the tune of $120 million of its creator’s personal fortune. Make no mistake, there is not a minute where this tower isn’t dangerously teetering or in complete free fall. But how glorious it is to watch it all crash to the ground!

That same verve for the fate of the film itself can be applied to writer/director/producer Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the Roman Empire, which has found a new life in an America lost in time and space. This retro-future New York is decorated head to toe in Roman regalia, with Madison Square Garden transformed into a coliseum and everyone flashing their favorite togas and olive branch crowns. But the skyline (a hideous amalgamation of matte paintings and the digital backdrop technology pioneered by The Mandalorian) is still littered with the skyscrapers of the past, and Cadillac Escalades remain the vehicle of choice. How and why the world got to this point is not fully explained, or even that important. What is important is what it all represents… which is also often a mystery.

For Cesar Catalina (Adam Driver), this version of New York is all wrong. His mantra is shaped by the words of Kylo Ren from The Last Jedi: “You’re still holding on! Let go!” His dream project is the titular city of Megalopolis, a utopian urban space to be built upon the crumbling infrastructure of the old world. His designs are fueled through Megalon, a new element he has created that functions similarly to Wakanda’s Vibranium. It’s stronger than any metal, heals wounds, and plugs whatever holes the plot deems necessary to fill.

Considering Coppola conceived this project in the late ‘70s and actively started developing it in the ‘80s, a tumultuous period that saw him reach his creative apex with Apocalypse Now and financial ruin with One from the Heart, it’s not hard to visualize the director creating Catalina as his stand-in, Megalopolis as American Zoetrope, and New Rome as the studio system at the tail end of the New Hollywood movement. Coppola has always had a disdain for the corporatization of filmmaking, and so does Catalina for how Mayor Frank Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito) perpetually puts a stop to his plans. Cicero decries Catalina’s vision as merely idealistic daydreaming, badmouthing his name in the media and passing legislation to maintain the old ways of thinking, including plans for a casino that will most certainly funnel all its profits to its already rich benefactors. Caught in the middle of these two warring titans is Cicero’s devoted daughter Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), who quickly becomes a star-crossed lover of Catalina.

To give Coppola the highest amount of credit, his ideas of a new way of thinking are not limited solely to the pages of his script. Megalopolis is not a movie that can be defined by normal filmmaking grammar, which allows it to maintain a rambunctious energy that is just as infectious as it sickening. Frames crash into one another in triptych fashion, the camera feverishly swirls around as it captures the debauchery, and the music can never decide if it's backing up an opera or a circus. To break the mold of reality and fiction even further, Coppola integrates a live element into the film as a man walks toward the screen and interacts with Catalina in real time, asking him questions and receiving answers. The merit of that moment and its viability once the film reaches a wide release remain a mystery, but its sheer existence is what pushes the giddy “what the fuck am I watching?” energy of the whole thing to an entirely new level.

But even if the studios are meant to be the ultimate bad guy in this fable, Coppola’s mishandling of his production inadvertently makes a case for their existence. We may decry their reckless spending and inability to take risks, but there’s no denying that any studio could have spent $120 million more efficiently than it is here. The sets and costumes look hideously gawdy, with the actors populating them speaking in unintelligible Shakespearean dialects. The cinematography is reminiscent of a perfume ad, the backdrops always in a magic hour mode and overstuffed with more visual effects than George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels.

That badness does become part of the charm at a certain point, an almost inadvertent way for the director of The Godfather trilogy to tear down your preconceptions of what a master filmmaker concocts once the guard rails have been fully removed. Almost all of the actors are just as off the chain as Coppola, with Aubrey Plaza and Shia LaBeouf matching the chaos to perfection. She plays Wow Platinum, a TV personality who enacts a gold-digging strategy to marry Catalina’s decrepit banker uncle Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voight), and he plays Crassus’ degenerate cross-dressing grandson who tries to steal the empire through Trumpian tactics. Everyone else, most notably Dustin Hoffman and Talia Shire, can barely figure out where they are and what they’re doing, leaving the whole ensemble feeling like a mishmash of high school theater kids yearning for an adult to tell them what to do.

Going into Megalopolis determined to make heads or tails of whether it was worth all the time, energy, and resources isn’t the correct attitude. Just as Coppola’s past risk-taking endeavors have furthered the evolution of cinema long after their initial birth, so might this maddening behemoth in the decades that follow. Do I want its influence to reach beyond this moment and shape the future? I don’t know, but I’m absolutely ecstatic that the question has been raised in such a memorable way.

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