‘Megalopolis’ Review: Francis Ford Coppola’s Passion Project Starring Adam Driver Is a Staggeringly Ambitious Big Swing, if Nothing Else

The character in Megalopolis played by Adam Driver with idealistic passion, Cesar Catilina, is a visionary genius intent on saving New York City by building a utopian future, dislodging the elite ruling class in the process. In many ways, Cesar’s mission, both noble and egomaniacal, seems a direct reflection of the dogged determination of Francis Ford Coppola to get this movie made at any cost. The “fable” could almost be an allegory for the pursuit of a dream in which an auteur can still make a monumental epic without compromise in a Hollywood that marginalizes art to focus purely on economics.

The first sparks of the idea came to Coppola in the early 1980s, and he’s been developing it on and off ever since — doing table reads with major-name actors, shooting 30 hours of second unit footage in Manhattan in 2001 and then almost abandoning the project six years later when funding proved elusive.

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Much has been written about how Coppola ended up self-financing the opulently scaled feature, with a reported budget of $120 million, raised partly through the sale of a large piece of his wine empire. And reports circulated widely after a Los Angeles screening in March, attended by honchos of major studios and streaming platforms, that no suitor was stepping forward.

As the director of classics like the Godfather movies, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, not to mention fondly remembered smaller pictures like Peggy Sue Got Married, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders and even failures that have since been positively reassessed, like One From the Heart, Coppola has accrued a lot of good will. That has endured even if his output in more recent years has been highly variable. The amusing self-deprecation of a couple of winking nods to his own grandiosity in Megalopolis also plays in his favor, as does the stirring dedication “For my beloved wife Eleanor,” who died last month.

But affection and nostalgia don’t count for much in the commercial equation. The word out of the L.A. screening was that nobody could see a way to make the numbers work, especially with the massive marketing spend Coppola envisioned. Then there was the big question of who the audience might be for a movie that’s part political drama, part arty sci-fi, part romance and even part screwball comedy, peppered throughout with lofty references to literature, philosophy, history and religion. The perception is now public knowledge in the industry that this film is never going to find a wide audience, and it’s impossible to disagree.

So is it a distancing work of hubris, a gigantic folly, or a bold experiment, an imaginative bid to capture our chaotic contemporary reality, both political and social, via the kind of large-canvas, high-concept storytelling that’s seldom attempted anymore? The truth is it’s all those things.

It’s windy and overstuffed, frequently baffling and way too talky, quoting Hamlet and The Tempest, Marcus Aurelius and Petrarch, ruminating on time, consciousness and power to a degree that becomes ponderous. But it’s also often amusing, playful, visually dazzling and illuminated by a touching hope for humanity. “Don’t let the now destroy the forever,” says Cesar.

I can’t say I was always engaged over its two hours-plus run time, but I was always curious about where it was going next. Is it a good movie? Not by a long stretch. But it’s not one that can be easily dismissed, either.

The story’s nucleus is a Roman Empire footnote about Lucius Sergius Catiline, an aristocrat and aspiring consul attempting to overthrow the Republic with a plan to boot out the upper class and liberate the underclass from debt. Those Rome references translate smoothly enough to modern-day New York (renamed New Rome), in architectural echoes, in statuary and in inscriptions on monuments and buildings.

Coppola’s screenplay rechristens Catiline as Cesar to evoke a better-known historical statesman, with Driver sporting a bowl haircut to match. In an inspired design touch, Cesar’s offices are in the spire of the Chrysler Building. He’s first seen standing on an outer ledge, and just as he’s about to fall, he stops time. That vaguely Matrix-adjacent skill, while it prompts some very cool sequences, doesn’t end up having all that much bearing on the actual plot.

More significant is Cesar’s invention of a miraculous new cellular-level building material called Megalon, environmentally friendly and aesthetically boundless, with which he wants to rebuild the city and return it to the people. But the brilliant architect and urban planner has staunch opposition from the newly elected conservative mayor, Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), who inherited a fiscal disaster from the previous administration and wants to build a casino complex to boost revenue. Frank and rich cronies like his fixer Nush (Dustin Hoffman) want to stick with the “safe” option of concrete and steel.

There’s bad blood between Cesar and Frank going back to when the new mayor was the D.A. in charge of the murder investigation of Cesar’s wife (Haley Sims), who haunts both his dreams and his waking life. The animosity is not helped by Cesar publicly calling Frank “The Chief Slumlord.”

Cesar has a clandestine relationship with TV financial reporter Wow Platinum (Aubrey Plaza), who craves money and power and is tired of being hidden away as a mistress. She plots to marry New York’s wealthiest man, the doddery Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voight), who also happens to be Cesar’s uncle; Wow’s end goal is to gain control of his bank. Plaza deploys her characteristic sardonic edge to good effect though the character is not particularly well-served by the story.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s independent-minded daughter Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), who parties hard with her club-kid besties, is drawn to Cesar’s idealism. Going against her father’s wishes she signs on as his aide-de-camp, and a romantic attachment develops that Frank tries to quash. Julia is the first convert in the mayor’s camp to embrace Cesar’s Megalopolis project, but Frank’s savvy wife Teresa (the sublime Kathryn Hunter) gradually inches toward becoming a believer too.

Julia’s resourcefulness comes in handy when Cesar lands in legal trouble over a fabricated sex scandal with one of the city’s Vestal Virgins. Don’t even ask. The architect of that sabotage is Cesar’s cousin Clodio (Shia LaBeouf), a narcissist besotted with Julia, whose rivalry with Cesar started when they were kids.

LaBeouf gives the movie’s drollest performance as a snaky narcissist who goes for gender-fluid fashion. “Revenge tastes best while wearing a dress,” Clodio says after he appears to have successfully smeared Cesar. Clodio also seizes on the discontent of the city’s lower classes to stoke his own political ambitions, rising quickly as a significant threat both to his cousin and the mayor.

Does all this hang together as a narrative? Not entirely, and it’s not likely to go down as one of the more incisive responses to our bitterly polarized political landscape. Nor does it ever quite settle on a uniform tone, frequently coming off as both earnest and silly. But it’s never bland, being far too extravagant for that. Who else among contemporary filmmakers is working on this kind of scale anymore, outside of tentpoles?

While the design elements — like Milena Canonero’s stylish costumes, combining contemporary flair with Greco-Roman draping — are impressive, there’s a slightly dated feel to the ideation of this decadent future New York, a playground for the rich and privileged with its high-fashion runways and hedonistic nightclubs. Turning Madison Square Garden into a kind of Colosseum with gladiatorial contests, chariot races and acrobats was a clever idea, even if the acts get a bit outré and the roar of the crowd so cacophonous it becomes grating.

Familiar sites like Grand Central Station, City Hall and Central Park ground the movie in a recognizable Manhattan. (Roman Coppola was second unit director, while some of the 2001 footage shot by Ron Fricke also made it in.) And the noirish feel given to studio sets through deft use of light and shadow makes over the city in ways comparable to what Ridley Scott did with Los Angeles in Blade Runner. Cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. and production designers Bradley Rubin and Beth Mickle draw inspiration from fine art, photography, Escher graphics and cinema going back to Méliès.

The cast is generally solid, ably led by Driver in a role that’s part dreamer and part pragmatist, and Esposito as a reactionary man who may not be quite as rigid as he seems.

Talia Shire turns up as Cesar’s emotionally chilly mother; Laurence Fishburne brings gravitas to Cesar’s all-seeing driver, also tasked with a bunch of scholarly voiceover narration; and Chloe Fineman is fun as Clodio’s sister, an intimate of Julia’s who’s like a courtier at Versailles. Others like Jason Schwartzman as a member of the mayor’s entourage or Balthazar Getty as Clodio’s right-hand man have little to do.

The film screened for critics in Cannes at an Imax theater, incorporating a brief live interlude, which I won’t spoil, other than to say it left people wondering if the element will be a part of regular commercial showings. Maybe it’s a tad gimmicky, but it suggests that Coppola sees Megalopolis as an event movie. Given what will likely be a fairly narrow appeal that’s perhaps unrealistic. But if this ends up being the distinguished 85-year-old director’s swan song, at least he’s capping his career with a risk-taking flourish.

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