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Fiddling While Rome Burns


Caesar Films


Megalopolis (2024)

The kindest way to describe “Megalopolis,” Francis Ford Coppola’s latest grasp at relevance, is that it is somewhat late-career Felliniesque, with its Art Deco production designs, costumes that range from ancient Greek to prerevolution French and the decadent life-as-circus motif. But let’s face it. Late-career Coppola gonna late-career Coppola. The film is bloated, unfocused and self-indulgent.

Before the premiere in the Cannes Film Festival’s official competition, there were some strategically planted items in the news about prospective buyers who’ve screened the film allegedly being unwilling to meet Mr. Coppola’s demand of a $100-million advertising and publicity commitment, casting this decision as some kind of studio failure to fully support a true visionary. Before this spin can even take hold, though, a more concerning tidbit about Mr. Coppola’s inappropriate on-set behavior has come to dominate the news cycle.

Indeed, the supposed 50-years-in-the-making passion project is the latest example of just how divorced from reality the once great Mr. Coppola has become. There’s a whole lot happening in “Megalopolis,” which posits a contemporary repeat of the Roman Empire’s downfall, yet it has little resemblance to what’s actually been going on in the world as America endures what historians describe as “the fourth turning” – essentially a period of crisis within an 80-year cycle of history repeating itself.

Adam Driver stars as Cesar Catilina, who has the ability to stop time and who is the visionary behind a utopian development project that is uprooting people and causing homelessness. He has made an enemy of Mayor Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), a former district attorney who prosecuted Catilina over the death of his wife. Catilina has apparently never gotten over her, yet he’s banging tabloid news anchor Wow Platinum (Aubrey Plaza) while also becoming entangled with Cicero’s socialite daughter, Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel). Of course, Catilina also must tend to a mother suffering dementia played by none other than Talia Shire.

You see, Mr. Coppola apparently has never come up with an idea he doesn’t like, even if the idea is not in service to the message, if any, he wants to convey. He throws everything at the film and absolutely nothing sticks!

The scheming Wow Platinum ultimately decides to marry banking tycoon Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voight). During the wedding reception at Madison Square Garden, we have performances from wrestlers, acrobats, singers, clowns . . . the list goes on and on and on. To top it off, they broadcast Catilina’s sex tape with an (alleged) underage pop star on the jumbotron. Every minute and every second of this folly is felt, excruciatingly, by the audience.

The real highlight of the film is its gilded and gaudy mise en scène, imbuing anything and everything with a golden hue. Even so, the utopia Catilina envisions looks as heinous as the Vessel, the shawarma-shaped sculpture in Hudson Yards that’s apparently become a destination for those wanting to commit suicide. Another key feature of this urban development is golden moving walkways. Like, has Mr. Coppola never been inside an airport?

There’s something, je ne sais quoi, about “Megalopolis” that’s very New Wave-y. But the technical polish does not compensate for the lack of substance. All the characters and plot points come across as cartoonish.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is, halfway through its Cannes premiere, an actor walked onstage with a mic stand and stopped right in front of the screen to conduct a Zoom interview with Catilina, who is projected in the background. It’s highly doubtful this will be performed at each screening if and when the film receives commercial release. Still, the only good this particular scene might do is to revive the by-now somnolent spectators in the audience.

The Cannes audience laughed when Julia declared they may name their baby Francis, like Frank Sinatra. This probably explains why so many French comedies are terrible. Then again, they did boo in the end, so there’s at least some accounting for taste.


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