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Cannes 2024: Megalopolis

A man looks over a city landscape through a telescope at sunset while a woman stands behind him.Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel in Megalopolis

Now that Megalopolis has premiered, nothing has actually changed. The film is a self-consciously impractical act that few would care nearly as much about if it weren’t very publicly known to have cost $120 million of Francis Ford Coppola’s personal money. That’s the kind of extravagant gesture you don’t get to ever see on this scale, and hence destined to be praised for being willed into existence amidst a sea of algorithimically conceived risk-aversion—or, alternately, decried as a hubristic folly in the trades with a palpable subtext of “how dare he?” Megalopolis is praiseworthy for mostly predictable reasons: lavish eccentricity, undeniable ambition, relentless novelty. That I’m skeptical of it comes down to Coppola’s intellectual project, which is sometimes surprisingly coherent but mostly counter-productively amorphous. Needless to say, anyone who wants to go in with no knowledge of its plot particulars or broader outline should stop reading now. 

The movie is so crammed with incident that when a good chunk of New York City is wiped out in a Deep Impact situation, that takes up far less than five minutes of screen time. In brief: it’s the Ciceros vs. the Crassuses in “New Rome,” which is visibly New York. In one corner there’s architect Caesar Catalina (Adam Driver): part Hamlet (he delivers the entirety of “To be or not to be” early on and has mommy issues), part Howard Roark striving to build structures society can’t comprehend and wants to stop before they’re built. His urge to construct a new world is opposed by mayor Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito); baroque complications ensue. The opening titles explicitly announce that this film is about an America not so different from Ancient Rome, i.e. an empire in danger of falling, and Caesar is the vilified visionary trying to steer us back to idealism. In a NYC context, the diagnosis is unexpectedly on-schedule for Eric Adams’s current tenure: Cicero is a black mayor who doesn’t hesitate to send the cops out for ass-beatings whenever he’s displeased while trying to build unaffordable housing disenfranchising the working classes. Caesar calls him a “slumlord”— a title it’d never occurred to me to apply to Adams, but a sound label all the same. Affordable housing now!

Everything else is fuzzier. Like the title itself, which obviously builds upon Metropolis, Megalopolis is a palimpsest of literary quotations and visual citations. There’s not a single image you haven’t seen before, but it’s overstuffed to such an extent that only the most hardened vidiot would be able to immediately recall every single precedent. This New York is unexpectedly reminiscent of The Hudsucker Proxy in its familiar-but-even-more-lavish skyscraper particulars and the repeated emphasis on large clocks and time literally stopping. Cicero plans for the city to be “a fun casino”; Caesar’s vision for it is out of Tomorrowland, which I thought Coppola was ripping off until I saw Brad Bird thanked in the credits, presumably for enabling him to straight-up re-appropriate that film’s footage. 

There are all manner of sub-plots, including one in which a good man is smeared with a trumped-up #MeToo accusation. The semi-canceled Dustin Hoffman is here, and the movie literally builds a statue to him, while the two best performances are given by the two most objectionable cast members. Right-wing loon Jon Voight is having an excellent time sounding like the only one close to “hey, I’m walking here” New Yorker status, while Shia LaBeouf delivers an oversized study in camp villainy. The impulse to rehabilitate, at his own expense, canceled outcasts relates to the ultimately-self-vindicating hubris that’s part of Coppola’s legend—baked into Apoocalypse Now, revisited to a financially disastrous degree in One From the Heart. Megalopolis is another portrait of a frustrated visionary that conflates opposition to its protagonist with opposition to the film’s very existence, a move Coppola previously performed in another passion project, Tucker: The Man and His Dream. This is also very much a family movie, populated with famous members of the Coppola clan (Talia Shire, Jason Schwartzman) and less so (Romy Mars, Sofia Coppola’s daughter who went TikTok viral last year) and dedicated to Francis’s late wife Eleanor. 

When mayor’s daughter Julia Cicero (Nathalie Emmanuel) first meets Caesar, their encounter is largely staged in a tightly choreographed one-shot that moves around his office without the purposeless camera drifting endemic to so many contemporary films. While the amount of CG cheese swells as Megalopolis goes on, at heart the film is classical in its visuals, as if applying the old studio ethos on a George Lucas soundstage. This is in thematic keeping with its quantity of citations; Megalopolis’s broad aim is to say that the American republic has core values worth saving, and that to rediscover and preserve them we need to build upon the entire store of pre-existing human knowledge. If the film is low on unprecedented visuals, that could arguably be by design, a reminder of all that we’re in danger of losing, refracted through an admittedly very idiosyncratic lens. 

The dialogue is a consistent cavalcade of floridity, as when Caesar accuses would-be protege Julia  of trying to “plow through the riches of my Emersonian mind.” There’s plenty more where that comes from, while the visuals steadily escalate in CG-augmented hysteria. Is this camp in a self-conscious sense? There are deliberate jokes here, and a charitable reading is that Coppola’s happy to continuously get viewers’ attention by any means possible as long as it redirects them to his didactic intent, which is clearly in earnest. This is where my disagreement with the project comes in: while I’m glad that Coppola got to make exactly what he wanted, I’m not entirely sure what that has to do with what I want as a viewer, and I’m definitely not convinced that what we need is a return to core humanist values or that those were ever meaningfully part of the American Experiment to begin with. And for all its scope and gestures to classical education (including a brief scene in Latin!), Megalopolis is American-centric and parochial to such an extreme that one subplot involves an election for alderman. It closes with a watery gloss on the pledge of allegiance that begins, “I pledge allegiance to our human family, and to all the species that we protect.” Is that the takeaway, or is it instead a line delivered by Voight shortly beforehand: “America, master of the known world, is now kaput”? The answer has to be both, just as the film itself is a call for public philanthrophy and social engagement paradoxically manifested as cinema’s single most expensive vanity project. 

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