Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis Is Bewildering but Brazenly One from the Heart

Movies Reviews Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis Is Bewildering but Brazenly One from the Heart

Francis Ford Coppola has been dreaming about Megalopolis since 1977, when he first conceived the idea for the movie in the midst of filming his heretofore most notorious white whale, Apocalypse Now. In the 40-plus years since, his plans for Megalopolis’ very form have evolved from movie to live theater performance and back to film again. The screenplay has undergone literally hundreds of rewrites. 

Watching the film—now finally realized as a 138-minute fever-dream spectacle—this evident, because swaths of Megalopolis feel over-digested by Coppola’s decades of obsessive reworking, a quality that will no doubt prompt millions of liters of digital ink to be spilled on Reddit analyses and valiant attempts at explainer articles. Just as you might watch Coppola’s 1979 magnum opus and then feel the urge to cue up Hearts of Darkness—the illuminating making-of documentary shot during Apocalypse Now‘s filming by Coppola’s late wife Eleanor—Megalopolis similarly leaves you with a hunger to dive below the surface. (An appetite the filmmaker has anticipated, as director Mike Figgis was asked to shoot a behind-the-scenes documentary in tandem with Megalopolis’ making.) The reasons are not the same, however: While the towering scale and how-the-hell-did-they-do-that-ness of the immaculately conceived Apocalypse Now prompts our post-credits curiosity, we seek supplemental material for Coppola’s latest film because it feels much too sprawling and scattershot in its current form to be fully understood without a decoder, untamed as it is by any conventional filmmaking wisdom.

The synopsis floating around before the film’s Cannes premiere framed Megalopolis as charting an ideological battle between idealist urban planner Cesar Catilina (a Caesar cut-sporting Adam Driver) and Giancarlo Esposito’s Franklyn Cicero, the toga-clad, cynical mayor of NYC-proxy New Rome. Though not untrue, this is a charitable description of the movie, because that thread gets tangled up with so many others in Megalopolis labyrinthine plot that it’s doing the film a real generosity to imply that it has a clear throughline. Once again, it’s the movie’s years of gestation that feel to blame here; Coppola hasn’t spent too little time on developing his thesis behind the scenes but so much that he’s seemingly forgotten we haven’t all been on the 47-year-long journey with him, and so he neglects to adequately lay out some of the movie’s underpinning elements.

Most glaring is how little we actually get to see of Cesar’s apparently utopian visions for the future of New Rome, dreamt up after the city is devastated by an event that feels like the stuff of Cold War-era paranoia (just one of several ideologically anachronistic elements that attest to Megalopolis‘ sheer age as an idea). We’re given tantalizing tidbits about Megalon, the physics-defying substance with which Cesar plans to build his futuristic new city, but its actual applications in the world of the film are few and far between, and thus a crucial part of the plot—in fact, its very driver—feels critically underexplored.

And by no means is that oversight a one-off occurrence. Dustin Hoffman (one of several actors in the film facing assault allegations) plays Cicero’s crafty consigliere Nush “The Fixer” Berman, who is dispatched off-screen with starkly little fanfare given how central a role the film suggests he will play. Self-described Hitchcockian intrigue shrouds a woman’s unexplained death, but the mystery dangled in front of us gets muddied in the wrong way by random-seeming eleventh-hour revelations. If you’ve seen the movie’s atmospheric teaser (which makes up its opening scene), you’ll also notice the conspicuous absence of any real elaboration on Cesar’s time-stopping abilities. Even the movie’s much-publicized $120 million budget—famously sourced from Coppola’s own pockets—feels absent in much of the film’s look.

You can’t really spin these elements of the movie as stealthily genius: parts of Megalopolis do indeed feel as messy as some initial reactions from the film’s friends-and-industry screening in April suggested. But it would be equally wrong to claim that the movie’s eyes are never clear, or that these imperfections poison the whole thing beyond redemption. Given how conspicuously Coppola’s finger isn’t anywhere near audiences’ pulses for portions of Megalopolis, for example, it might be tempting to read the film’s rascally sense of humor—there are frequent moments of soap opera-leaning camp—as yet another cause for cringe, alongside the unironically delivered Shakespeare recitations. But this doesn’t stand up to serious analysis when you consider all the dead giveaways that the film’s amped-up moments of theatricality are indeed deliberate (Aubrey Plaza’s deliciously arch performance as Wall Street reporter “Wow Platinum” alone ought to be enough to telegraph that).

And anyway, are Megalopolis‘ imperfections graver sins than the flaws we’ve grown accustomed to accepting in our movies? In a cinematic landscape full of quipping superheroes and C-suite-backed corporate satire, we’re not exactly primed to take Megalopolis for what it is: not a polished, self-congratulating exercise in meta-irony or barely camouflaged bottom line-booster, but an impulsive (if wayward) immersion into that apparently outdated thing—sincerity.

Like so many films of recent years (plus Coppola’s own 1979 masterpiece), Megalopolis is a film that attempts to reckon with a zeitgeisty sense of apocalypse, only without any of the cynicism or aloofness we’re used to these movies disguising themselves with. Megalopolis is also by no means cowed by the humility that we’re used to from today’s filmmakers (whether affected or genuine)—it is totally free of insecurity. It doesn’t just attempt to grapple with America’s rightward lurch (although Shia LaBeouf does play an impish nepo baby who dresses in drag and heads up a Trumpian movement of red-capped fascists), it also sets its sights ambitiously high, on the entire “human family” itself. Hubristic, maybe, but it’s clear from the movie’s devotion to the subject, however chaotically realized, that this isn’t an empty, grandiose gesture from Coppola. What’s more, the parallels to Apocalypse Now—at least in the film’s scale and already-cemented legend—mean you can’t help but take notice of the filmmaker’s radical conversion from cynicism towards hope in the intervening years, and indeed the age at which he’s making this evolution.

All the spoilers in the world won’t make you immune to the shock of some of Megalopolis more unhinged choices, and it’s true that the movie’s ultimate lack of cohesion means any response to it will be similarly fractured by caveats. It’s undoubtedly dense and inaccessible in parts, and its wry humor can inadvertently throw you off the scent of its full-chested earnestness. And yet, and yet. While Megalopolis is sometimes a movie of unintended challenges, it’s mostly made up of deliberate ones. In Coppola’s absolute resistance to outside influence, there is a defiant refusal to march to commercial drums—and, folly or not, this makes it enormously refreshing in the age of A.I. decision-making and predictable box office results. While it might not be early Coppola in content—or, indeed, style—its very existence means it does share in that era’s spirit.

If you forgive Megalopolis its lack of polish and embrace the 21st-century sin of sincerity that is at the film’s heart, there’s something deeply moving about what Coppola is trying to do here, about the possibilities he asks us to consider—hell, that he even thinks there are possibilities for us to consider. (As Driver’s Cesar says, perhaps utopias aren’t meant to offer solutions, but ask the right questions.) While Megalopolis might appear gift-wrapped for the cynic, then, if you meet it with any kind of goodwill, you may see in its unabashed rejection of nihilism, defiant unorthodoxy, and complete lack of artistic insecurity exactly the kind of challenge cinema needs right now.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writer: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Adam Driver, Giancarlo Esposito, Nathalie Emmanuel, Aubrey Plaza, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Voight, Jason Schwartzman, Talia Shire, Grace VanderWaal, Laurence Fishburne, Kathryn Hunter, Dustin Hoffman
Release Date: May 16, 2024 (Cannes)

Farah Cheded is a British-Algerian critic and Columbo enthusiast. Her work can be found at outlets including Film School Rejects, Paste Magazine, and The Playlist.

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