Review: Megalopolis Is Messy, Self-Indulgent, and Glorious

Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel in <i>Megalopolis</i> Credit - Courtesy of American Zoetrope

If you were a filmmaker who had made at least four of the greatest films of the late 20th century, had amassed a nice chunk of money to spend thanks to some sound investments, and had reached a point in your life where you cared more about speaking to an audience than pleasing it, what kind of movie would you make? Would you reboot your favorite IP? Adapt a seemingly unadaptable book? Make an improved version of, say, Casablanca or On the Waterfront just to prove it could be done (which it can’t)? And what part would your ego play in all this—or would you pretend, disingenuously, not to have any ego at all? What if the film you ended up making had zero chance of becoming a big commercial hit? How much would you care? Would you care at all?

By now anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that Francis Ford Coppola spent a truckload of his own money to bring a long-germinating dream to life with Megalopolis, the story of a futuristic American city rattled by an ideological earthquake of dueling egos and conflicting ideals. Now that’s an idea sure to pack ’em in. But Megalopolis, playing in competition here in Cannes, is basically review-proof, so weird, so ungainly, and yet in some places so glorious that anyone who squints at it and says, “I don’t get it” is playing right into its wiggy strategy. Coppola’s picture is a lot of things at once: a wail of despair, a rallying cry to save the principles of our wobbly republic, a trumpet blast of reassurance that we humans can re-learn to live with thought and intention, and to dare one another into ever-more-dazzling intellectual endeavors and feats of creativity. That’s a lot to pack into one relatively short movie. But then, to crib a line from Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, Megalopolis is less a movie than a vibe.

So what’s it about, exactly? Megalopolis is set in a future version of New York, or perhaps a mirror version of our current one, with two figures warring for the soul of the city—or, more broadly, the republic itself. Giancarlo Esposito is Franklyn Cicero, the city’s mayor, who’s used to doing things the old-school way; though he appears to have the city’s best interests at heart, he’s no stranger to corruption, using it as a shortcut to get what he wants. Adam Driver is Cesar Cataline, an architect, inventor, and fervent believer in building a bright new world; he’s principled, driven, but hardly perfect—there’s a Robert Moses-caliber arrogance about the way he blows up old buildings just so he can replace them with his own creations. In addition to having invented a miracle substance known as Megalon, he has mastered the art of stopping time. He tries out this new gimmick by stepping through a window of the Chrysler Building and creeping to the edge, taking in the vertiginous view around him as he teeters on the steely brink. Then he issues his mighty command. It works! He doesn't plummet to his death. If you could do this, you’d feel like the king of the world too.

But Cesar, a widower still mourning the wife he lost years ago, is humbled by a young woman who steps into his orbit: Julia Cicero (Nathalie Emmanuel), the mayor’s daughter, is as smart as he is, maybe even smarter—she has the right quote from Marcus Aurelius for every occasion. But she’s also simply more intuitive. She’s dazzled by Cesar’s powers, and when they’re in danger of seeping away, her very touch restores them. Mayor Cicero is none too happy about this union, and Cesar has other enemies, too, like Shia LaBeouf’s sly schemer Clodio Pulcher, a spoiled wastrel with the heart of a dirty politician, who may or may not be involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister. (This is, after all, a New York version of ancient Rome, and the streets are filled with girlies partying in skimpy outfits, golden high-heeled gladiator sandals laced up high on their shapely calves.) The other characters milling about in this mad swirl include big-time banker Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voight, looking as if he barely knows what planet he’s on, though somehow the effect works), television personality and gold-digger Wow Platinum (a delightfully calculating Aubrey Plaza), and Constance Crassus Catilina (Talia Shire, chilly and cool), Cesar’s emotionally withholding mom. At one point she takes the opportunity to semi-explain string theory to him. The apple, as they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree.

There are multiple betrayals in Megalopolis, a murder or two, and a great deal of noble speechifying. (“What is time,” Cesar muses at one point, “except a curve of past and future around us?”) Coppola’s central preoccupation, if you were forced to corral the movie’s many waving tentacles of thought, is that humans have the potential to build peaceful, beautiful, efficient societies, but generally fail to measure up to their own ideals. In the movie’s press notes, Coppola states that his influences include Voltaire, Rousseau, Dickens, Ruskin, Emerson, Euripedes, Moliere, Pirandello, Abel Gance, Fellini, Bergman, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa—and that’s barely half of them. The idea for Megalopolis has been kicking around in his noggin since the early 1980s; he was inspired by the Catilinarian Conspiracy of 63 BC, in which a Roman aristocrat, Lucius Sergius Cataline, tried to throw over the Roman republic, thus ousting the ruling class and helping the lower classes get a leg up. Thus, all the men in Megalopolis have those shortie bangs, as seen on old Roman statues, as well as in vintage 1950s snapshots of little kids whose scissor-happy moms cut their hair at home.

You might want to laugh at Megalopolis; you might be tempted to walk out. And you wouldn’t be wrong to call it self-indulgent. But then, haven’t we had enough movies that are audience-indulgent, seeking only to appease—and never, ever to offend—legions of fanboys and -girls who have very specific ideas about what they want from entertainment? I found myself almost literally leaning closer to the screen during Megalopolis, trying to grasp exactly what Coppola is seeking to communicate. I might have caught about a third of it, at best, but I’ll take a messy, imaginative sprawl over a waxen, tasteful enterprise any day.

And if you’ve seen any of the small, independently financed pictures Coppola made earlier in the 2000s, particularly his imaginative 2011 fairytale-murder-mystery Twixt, with Elle Fanning, Megalopolis might not seem all that weird. Late in his career, Coppola freed himself to play more with fanciful images, and he indulges freely here. There’s a futuristic fashion show, complete with finely draped and pleated dresses that resemble undersea life forms. Nearly all the women characters (and sometimes the men) wear oodles of flashy movie jewelry, some of which is clearly costly and vintage, or custom-made, though there are also lots of earrings that might have come off the two-for-$15 earring rack at Claire’s. And why not? Every filmmaker has the right to save a buck where he can. In one of the movie’s most wondrous sequences, we see the outline of twins on the belly of a drowned woman, pregnant when she died; they curl tenderly toward one another like little in-the-womb legumes. Their shapes, and the curves of the woman’s body around them, shift into abstraction, gradually taking the form of dappled underwater stones, becoming one with the underwater earth. It’s a gorgeous, poetic image.

What does it all mean? It’s clear that Coppola is feeling some anguish over the way certain honorable American ideals—essentially human ideals—have become distorted and warped, maybe even discarded altogether. It’s become almost unfashionable to care about the country’s future. You hear the phrase “burn it all down” a lot; the nihilist’s way is always the easiest. With Megalopolis, Coppola might be feeling his way toward a new definition of patriotism, an anti-partisan view that has nothing to do with mindless flag waving and everything to do with preserving, and building on, our compassion and creativity as citizens of Planet Earth. He’s put his money where his heart is, and his faith in the idea that we'll follow along. We have something to gain, and little to lose, if we try.

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