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Cannes 2024 review: 'Megalopolis' - Francis Ford Coppola's disastrous folly

Megalopolis
Megalopolis Copyright Caesar Film LLC - Cannes Film Festival
Copyright Caesar Film LLC - Cannes Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
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Francis Ford Coppola returns to the Croisette with one of the most anticipated films of this year's Cannes Film Festival. It has to be seen to be believed. And not in a good way.

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This is the toughest review I’ve had to write in a long time.

It borders on impossible, as I stopped noting down plot points for Megalopolis very early on in my attempt to take notes during the screening, as this insane baroque fever dream billed as a “Roman epic” and "A Fable” defies all description.

Megalopolis has to be seen to be believed.

And I don’t mean that in a good way.

I don’t care if it’s the likely swansong from the veteran filmmaker behind such classics as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation. Nor do I care to entertain those who’ll delude themselves into thinking that Megalopolis is some sort of magnum opus from a filmmaker with nothing left to lose, giving his grandiose folly a pass because the director’s self-financed $120 million passion project represents a go-for-broke high-concept allegory on Art in the future.

No, Megalopolis is an embarrassment of the highest order, Coppola’s Cloud Atlas by way of Southland Tales. And even that sounds better than it actually is.

I’ll attempt to walk you through the basic story of this unwieldy mess.

It takes place in a decadent metropolis called New Rome, formerly New York. How do we know it’s decadent? Because there’s a party with the presence of decadence incarnate for filmmakers wishing to show that the world is all topsy turvy: lesbians. Gasp!

The newly anointed Mayor Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito) is embroiled in a bitter rivalry with architect Cesar Catalina (Adam Driver), the visionary head of the city’s Design Authority division. He’s tortured and likes monologuing while Dustin Hoffman and James Remar stand in the background doing sweet fuck all.

Oh, and Cesar has the canny (and unexplained) ability to stop time when he chooses.

Don’t ask.

Catalina has created a Nobel Prize-winning material called Megalon, with which he plans to revitalize New Rome’s infrastructure. He’s having an affair with shock journo minx Wow Platinum (Aubrey Plaza, giving it socks), who has also got her eye on Catalina’s banker uncle, Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voight). Crassus’ grandson, Clodio (Shia LaBeouf) fosters a grudge against his cousin and desires nothing more than to inherit his grandfather’s empire – and later takes on a Trumpian agenda to take over the city.

It then goes fully Montague-Capulet when Cesar falls for Cicero’s daughter Julia, played by Nathalie Emmanuel, who tries her best with a barely dimensional character but can’t hold the screen as one of the many wooden female props in this film who are all cartoonish clichés in the orbit of *sound the trumpets* MALE GENIUS.

And from there, it’s all a mad jumble of heteroclitic strands that defy basic storytelling and dramatic coherence.

There’s a Taylor Swift avatar named Vesta Sweetwater (Grace VanderWaal) who performs a song about her pledge to remain virginal until marriage while wealthy crowds are asked to donate money to assist in her vow. Clodio doctors footage of Vesta sleeping with Cesar, which temporarily tanks his reputation. But then that’s resolved in mere minutes.

Laurence Fishburne narrates Coppola’s pretentious dialogue, which quotes Shakespeare, Petrarch and Marcus Aurelius in its bid to be a modern re-imagining of a Roman tragedy about the fall of empires and the role of the visionary in a crumbling world.

The leaden script spouts out some scribbled truisms on the elusive meaning of time and the danger of utopias, all with the earnest pomposity of a sixteen-year-old who’s smoked a bad batch of the devil’s cabbage - something which may or may not be accurate, if the reports are true. Except that the director’s 85.

Jon Voight at one point calls Aubrey Plaza a ‘Wall Street slut” before shooting an arrow at her heart while she’s wearing a very revealing Cleopatra outfit. At least that part was fun.

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And then there was the happening, which occurred midway through the press screening I attended. Someone came on stage with a microphone in order to interact with the film for less than 2 minutes.

Seriously, don’t ask.

For a minute, I thought there was something wrong with the projector, and while I’m all for pushing the envelope and the boundaries of an artistic medium, this useless and planned gimmicky crap made me wish the screening had fallen prey to a technical issue.

Oh, and how could I forget the muddled inclusion of a tree sculpted swastika, as well as an out-of-bollock-nowhere montage that features Hitler, Mussolini and 9/11, as well as the all-important plot point centred around a Soviet satellite that’s about to crash into New Rome. It’s mentioned, briefly shown, and then forgotten about.

Seriously, pour one out for the distribution team, who can only coast on Coppola’s name at this point to sell this film.

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“What’s a seven-letter word for God’s revenge on mankind?” asks Wow Platinum.

The answer’s “Pandora.”

I’ve got another one for you: “What’s a 11-letter word that represents dull visual exuberance, bland performances, and is an exhausting reminder that Coppola now adds his name to the list of an aging generation of self-involved directors incapable of distinguishing a good idea from a piss poor one, who apparently are destined to cap off their careers with demented duds vying for cult classic status?”

The answer’s “Megalopolis.”

Please God, may David Cronenberg’s latest film in Competition be worth the trip to Cannes, otherwise his name risks making the list too.

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But let’s not tempt fate. For now, I’ll just come to terms how the man who directed The Godfather has proven himself capable of one of the most hubristically misguided and awful passion projects I’ve ever seen. In this respect, at least the title is on point. 

Megalopolis premiered in Competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Distribution pending.

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