Saturday, May 18, 2024

“MEGALOPOLIS”

THE STORYAn accident destroys a decaying metropolis called New Rome. Cesar Catilina, an idealist architect with the power to control time, aims to rebuild it as a sustainable utopia, while his opposition, corrupt Mayor Franklyn Cicero, remains committed to a regressive status quo. Torn between them is Franklyn’s socialite daughter, Julia, who, tired of the influence she inherited, searches for her life’s meaning.

THE CASTAdam Driver, Giancarlo Esposito, Nathalie Emmanuel, Aubrey Plaza, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Voight, Jason Schwartzman, Talia Shire, Grace VanderWaal, Laurence Fishburne, Kathryn Hunter & Dustin Hoffman

THE TEAMFrancis Ford Coppola (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 138 Minutes


A legend in the industry for decades, Academy Award-winner Francis Ford Coppola had one of, if not the very best, four runs of feature-directed films in the 1970s, which have not only come to define his career but have bought him a life-long supply of goodwill despite the mixed creative output which followed in the years after: “The Godfather,” “The Conversation,” “The Godfather: Part II” and “Apocalypse Now.” Now, at the age of 85, in the twilight of his career, and thirteen years since the release of his last film, “Twixt,” Coppola has returned to the big screen with his largest film since his colossal trip to the Vietnam jungle in 1979. Selling off a large portion of his self-made wine business to fund this epic project himself, “Megalopolis” has been described before its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival as by the director himself, “a love story,” “a Roman epic,” and now has been reported to have had numerous production problems and scandals. So what is it really? In what may be the director’s swan song, it’s regrettable to say it’s a catastrophic mega-failure. A glorious swing and a miss of grandiose filmmaking we rarely see anymore because today’s major Hollywood studios typically avoid financing projects on a scale such as this with minimal commercial appeal. This is why, on the one hand, we should be thankful it even exists in the first place, and on the other hand, we should be wondering what exactly went wrong to lead to such an unrestrained disaster.

What was once considered New York City has now become New Rome, a decaying metropolis inspired off the back of ancient Roman culture through its wealthy elites, while the rest of the downtrodden city searches for purpose, leadership, and a way forward to rebuild a new utopia. The key to such a future is Cesar Catilina (Adam Driver), a genius architect with the power to control time, who aims to rebuild the city as a sustainable utopia through the use of his Nobel Prize-winning new building material “Megalon.” Is Megalon safe to use? Mayor Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito) doesn’t think so, as he remains in opposition to Cesar, seeking to uphold the less advanced but reliable status quo. As the two men fight for power amongst the city’s bureaucratic officials and leaders, between them is Franklyn’s socialite daughter, Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), who goes to work for Cesar. Is she spying on him? Falling in love with him? What does she hope to gain? As tensions within the city and among those in power continue to rise, “Megalopolis” seeks to chart a hopeful path forward for its audience through the chaos and devastation.

You can tell Francis Ford Coppola thinks a lot about the Roman Empire because its influence is all over “Megalopolis.” A modern re-imagining of the Catilinarian conspiracy, from the opulent production design to the golden-bathed cinematography to the many togas worn by characters throughout the film, “Megalopolis” wants to parallel history by forewarning us through its “A Fable” title card that civilization is destined to crumble and rebuild again. This is an ambitious film with many ideas in mind. Themes of time (lots and lots of monologues about the nature of time), power, history, legacy, civilization, economics, politics, media, it’s all here. Unfortunately, so much of “Megalopolis” is a mess regarding story and character that the foundation begins to crack from the very get-go, making it barely able to hold up its many lofty ideas to allow any of them to offer any semblance of meaningful commentary.

Cesar is introduced, stepping off the ledge of a skyscraper, almost ready to plunge to his death, but then suddenly yells to stop time and pulls himself back up. How can he do this? Why? It’s never explained. He has a mother (played by Talia Shire) who has vicious contempt for her son; why? He has a mistress (hilariously) named Wow Platinum (Aubrey Plaza), a no-bullshit journalist who is unafraid to ask her powerful subjects tough questions. What is their relationship based on? We don’t know. What does Cesar see in Julia considering the threat she possibly poses, being the daughter of the man who once tried to have him imprisoned for the murder of his wife? He was acquitted but is still haunted by the memory of his wife. These plot lines are either dropped or forgotten about as the movie indulges in the psychedelic look into the mind of a genius, utilizing split screens, dizzying editing, and unmotivated camera shots, which feel like they’re trying to overcompensate for the lack of a solid story with characters we care about.

Every performer here feels lost as they deliver their lines with about as much charisma as Tommy Wiseau. Listening to Emmanuel say “Daddy” every time Julia addresses her father is beyond embarrassing, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg which inevitably sinks this titanic disaster. Practically every line-reading is wooden from her, while Driver and Esposito are going through the motions with performances they could do in their sleep. However, most baffling is Shia LaBeouf as Clodio Pulcher, Cesar’s cousin and son of Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voigt), who owns the city’s bank. A juvenile party animal with a ridiculous mullet, LaBeouf is playing one of the film’s villains (fitting, considering his real-life history of abuse allegations) who dresses in drag at one point and utters such ridiculous lines like “Revenge is best when wearing a dress.” If this is Coppola’s idea of villainy in 2024, perhaps it’s okay for this to be the end of his filmmaking career after all because the result is laughably atrocious. But I suppose if listening to Jon Voigt make boner jokes or Aubrey Plaza laying out her evil master plan while having sex is your kick, then there maybe there is a degree of “it’s so bad, it’s good” to be found here.

But the inexplicable doesn’t stop there! In what will go down as a live first for me, there’s one out-of-nowhere moment in the film where Cesar is engaged in a press conference and a gentleman (who we, the audience, assumed was a paid actor) actually walked out onto the Cannes stage with a microphone and proceeded to ask Driver’s Cesar questions, which the film’s edit responded to in real-time. Why? Who knows! Will this happen again at other screenings? No idea. Will they still leave the scene in the film and not have a live component to it? Probably, but honestly, this is a film that perhaps defies comprehension. After all, we should be grateful Francis Ford Coppola got the chance to make this in the first place, right? After viewing it myself, I’m not so sure. Of course, on some level, I admire the ambition and artistic intent. But the reality is, this did not work for me nearly as well as it should’ve given the hype surrounding it, making it one of the more fascinating disappointments in recent memory.

Wrestlers, chariot races, toga parties, a musical performance sung by Grace VanderWaal as Vesta Sweetwater (another iconic character name in this film), “Megalopolis” wants to be this glorious fable about how an empire fell due to the lust for power from a few men (as Cesar’s driver and servant played by Laurence Fishburne tells us insistently via. voiceover throughout the film). Still, more so than that, it wants to be a definitive commentary from an artist about artists who can never lose control over time. Even after they perish, their work will live on in the hearts and minds of others forever. Yes, there are attempts also to include searing commentary on the media and politics, but when you know you’re running out of time and you’ve gambled everything on the line for this (possibly) one final film, one can begin to understand why “Megalopolis” is overfilled with ideas. At its best, its many failures can result in a sloppy, entertaining time of horrid line readings, bland performances, and ostentatious filmmaking, which will have your head spinning from its lack of cohesion. At its worst, just as Vesta Sweetwater says after her musical performance, “You can see through me,” we can see through Coppola and what he was possibly trying to achieve by telling this elaborate story, which only makes it all the more heartbreaking to know he did not, outside of actually creating and finishing the film, successfully deliver another winner at this stage in his career and life to go alongside the classics he’s already known for. Time is running out; life may be temporary but film, even the ones considered failures, lasts forever.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Extravagant production and costume design with a level of scale and ambition that could be considered admirable. Might fall into the territory of "so bad, it's actually good."

THE BAD - One of the most ostentatious and baffling displays of filmmaking in recent times, with bland performances and a laughable, incomprehensible screenplay.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 3/10

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Matt Neglia
Matt Negliahttps://nextbestpicture.com/
Obsessed about the Oscars, Criterion Collection and all things film 24/7. Critics Choice Member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Extravagant production and costume design with a level of scale and ambition that could be considered admirable. Might fall into the territory of "so bad, it's actually good."<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>One of the most ostentatious and baffling displays of filmmaking in recent times, with bland performances and a laughable, incomprehensible screenplay.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>3/10<br><br>"MEGALOPOLIS"