‘Megalopolis’: Francis Ford Coppola’s Opus Is the Laughingstock Everyone Feared

Mihai Malaimare / American Zoetrope
Mihai Malaimare / American Zoetrope

About midway through a press screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s much-discussed and long-awaited Megalopolis at the Cannes Film Festival, the screen went black and someone ascended the stage in front of it. For a moment, you could feel the entire theater on edge as if something had gone desperately wrong. Maybe there was a technical issue? Maybe we would need to evacuate? Instead, the person took out a mic and “played” the role of a reporter asking Adam Driver’s character questions at a press conference following a major disaster. Driver, of course, remained on screen and when his answer was finished the man left the stage and returned to his seat in the front row.

In a movie full of bizarre and baffling choices, this was maybe the most inexplicable. Does Coppola imagine this happening at every screening of the film? And if so, what are the logistics of that? And what is the point? To ostensibly represent living humanity in his movie about the future? Or just for kicks?

That said, the sequence, live actor included, also may have predicted what is to come for Megalopolis. This is the kind of movie that will live on in midnight screenings. The phrase “destined to be a cult classic” gets thrown around a lot these days and mostly inaccurately—something that is weird but popular and critically acclaimed does not a “cult classic” make—and yet it seems to actually apply here. Megalopolis is stilted, earnest, over the top, CGI ridden, and utterly a mess. And yet you can picture a crowded theater shouting along with Jon Voight as he says in one key scene, “What do you make of this boner I got?”

This is maybe not the fate that Coppola wants for Megalopolis, a film he has been thinking about making for decades and in which he invested millions of his own money. (One too that has already been beset by controversy.) The film itself has grand ambitions too, with its near-persistent references to ancient Rome and its Marcus Aurelius quotations.

A photo including Adam Driver in the film Megalopolis

Adam Driver

Mihai Malaimare / American Zoetrope

Narrated by Laurence Fishburne—who also worked on another but more successful tumultuous Coppola production, Apocalypse NowMegalopolis tells the story of Cesar Catilina (Driver), a Nobel Prize winner who can stop time and has developed a substance called Megalon. He wants to use this matter to build Megalopolis in New Rome, which is New York, but futuristic and Roman. (Megalon can make a dress see-through and heal a man’s face. I’m still confused.)

Cesar’s main opponent is Mayor Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), who wants to build a casino. Frank also once prosecuted Cesar over the death of his wife, but Cesar was acquitted of murder. Both Cesar and Frank can be stand-ins for Coppola himself, battling between grandiosity and practicality, innovation and age. It becomes pretty obvious when at one point it's mentioned that Frank can also go by “Francis.”

Cesar’s genius, idealism, and sad boy vibes intrigue the mayor’s party girl daughter Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), despite her father’s enmity. Their love story, lacking any notable chemistry, is one thread of the sprawling movie. Meanwhile, there’s also Aubrey Plaza as Wow Platinum, a scheming TV reporter and former mistress of Cesar’s. (All the names are pretty fabulous, you cannot deny this.) She marries aging banker Hamilton Crassus III (Voight) in her quest for money. Crassus’s grandson Clodio (Shia LaBeouf, whose presence is unfortunate and distracting) is a fool who wants to take down his cousin Cesar in his jealousy over Julia. (It’s also implied that Clodio has an incestuous relationship with his sisters, one of whom is played by Chloe Fineman.)

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Throughout Megalopolis there are a lot of discussions of the beauty and danger of utopias as well as the perils of idealism, and yet whatever Coppola is actually trying to say about leadership and human foibles is hidden under all the wackadoo spectacle and leaden dialogue.

All the performances are pitched at different levels. Driver, per usual, is taking his job very seriously, playing Cesar with haunted gravitas even when he’s convulsing in a drug-induced hallucination sequence. Emmanuel is all sweetness, the words from the script landing with a thud coming out of her mouth. If anyone is having fun it’s Aubrey Plaza, an avowed appreciator of Showgirls, a true camp classic, who leans into the ridiculousness of playing a nasty gold digger who says things like, “Listen, bitch.” She seems to relish making Wow as lewd and conniving as possible, a gig that culminates in a ludicrous sex scene in which she sits on LaBeouf's face while forcing Clodio to call her “Auntie Wow.”

Coppola’s persistence in grafting Rome onto New York is amusing but labored. This culture he imagines reveres the ancients to such an extent that singer-songwriter Grace VanderWaal plays a pop star named Vesta Sweetwater, a newfangled vestal virgin. During a celebration at Madison Square Garden, now a colosseum, old men contribute money to her virginity pledge.

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However, Cesar’s actual goals, ostensibly the point of this whole thing, are vague and Megalopolis itself ends up looking like Hudson Yards. If there’s a political message on screen, that too is muddied. Moments where a Confederate flag and a swastika turn up are jolting and out of place, and a montage about civilization that features Hitler and 9/11 is cringe-inducing. And most of it takes place against a backdrop that can best be described as screen-saver-esque.

Still, Megalopolis is the kind of thing that has to be seen to be believed. Many will find it uproarious, others may locate some profundity, most will have to shake their heads. Whatever it is, it’s a lot. And I do hope that someone is required to get up and pretend to ask Adam Driver questions every single showing. It’s part of the experience.

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