Francis Ford Coppola’s movie is hilarious. Sometimes even intentionally.

Francis Ford Coppola’s movie is hilarious. Sometimes even intentionally.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis took 41 years to make. It might take as long to understand. Coppola’s magnum opus, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival last night, is a movie of extraordinary highs and baffling lows, alternately dazzling and confounding. Sometimes, in the same moment, it’s both. When I asked colleagues who’d seen it—at a remote early-morning screening, added at the last minute to accommodate Coppola’s preference for IMAX—they looked at me like the mute humans in the Planet of the Apes movies, as if their powers of speech had abruptly and unexpectedly deserted them. No one wants to trash an elderly legend’s passion project, one that, after decades of trying and failing to get it made, he finally financed with some $120 million of his own money—not to mention one that is dedicated to his late wife, Eleanor, who died last month. But it’s also a film that defies and even actively resists description, one that sounds even loopier in summary than its 138 minutes feel. You have to see it to believe it. And even then, you may not.

Now for the loopy summary. Adam Driver stars as Cesar Catilina, a visionary architect who is equal parts Robert Moses and The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark. After inventing a revolutionary new building material called Megalon, he plans to rebuild the city of New Rome—essentially a version of Manhattan frozen in the 1930s—according to a utopian template, and doesn’t seem particularly concerned about how many presently occupied buildings he has to demolish to make room for it. He’s opposed by Mayor Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), a stoic ruler with more modest and less destructive goals for civic improvement, as well as a collection of the city’s moneyed interests: megabanker Hamilton Crassus III (Jon Voight), high-powered fixer Nush Berman (Dustin Hoffman), and his ambitious cousin Clodio (Shia LaBeouf), a mulleted playboy with his own designs on power. Although he’s still mourning his dead wife, Cesar has been involved for some time with financial reporter Wow Platinum (Aubrey Plaza), a sultry blonde willing to use every asset she has to become someone who makes news rather than covering it. Eventually, he falls in love with the mayor’s daughter, Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), approaching a return to happiness even as the world around him crumbles. Oh, and also: He can stop time with his mind.

That jumble of plot points and influences—names borrowed from ancient history and from the rough drafts of unwritten Thomas Pynchon novels—doesn’t begin to convey the chaotic experience of watching Megalopolis, which is one of the most genuinely unhinged things ever projected on a screen. I can’t say whether the fact that Coppola’s hero occupies the top floor of the Chrysler Building, whence he surveys the city like a scale model laid out for his re-envisioning, is an intentional reference to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster, a cycle of five films of varying lengths—along with accompanying sculptures, drawings, and other associated works—whose centerpiece is a battle with the creator of Manhattan’s Art Deco landmark. But it shares with Barney’s interdisciplinary sprawl a desire to ingest and refashion the entire history of an artistic medium, to reconsider, in Coppola’s case, just what movies are. He’s quite obviously inspired by the unchecked grandiosity of Hollywood’s silent era and especially the cast-of-thousands epics of Cecil B. DeMille; at times, the effort to simply take stock of all the name actors Coppola has coaxed into appearing for the space of a few shots overwhelms the ability to keep track of which characters they’re meant to be playing. One disgruntled crew member kvetched to the Guardian that Coppola spent the better part of a day tinkering with an on-set visual effect that could have been accomplished in “10 minutes” via digital means, and that was after he fired virtually all of the film’s previous visual effects team. The movie industry’s trade papers have covered Megalopolis’ production with a kind of prurient glee, tut-tutting Coppola’s departure from conventional Hollywood practices. The man made The Godfather, after all. What a shame.

In the 27 years following his last studio movie, an adaptation of John Grisham’s legal thriller The Rainmaker, Coppola abandoned traditional narrative with a vengeance. But though Youth Without Youth, Tetro, and Twixt had their virtues, they were also something of a chore to watch. Megalopolis is, by contrast, a hoot: mostly on purpose, occasionally by accident, and sometimes, as when Voight opens a particular fraught encounter by discussing the size of his boner, the latter turns into the former. At times, you can see how Coppola has adjusted his script to changing times; the third act begins with an analogue for 9/11, and LaBeouf’s character, a wealthy failson with a talent for using populist rhetoric to whip up political fervor is … well, you know. At other times, it seems as if he’s been ensconced in the Silverfish, the custom-built trailer where he has retreated to work out on-set problems since the days of One From the Heart, for decades instead of hours. (His attempt at envisioning a virginal pop starlet feels particularly out of touch.) It’s a movie in which there are big ideas and intricately worked-out details, but the two don’t always seem to be in communication with one another.

About those ideas: When he’s applying the arc of ancient Rome to contemporary America, Coppola might as well be an old man muttering at the History Channel. But visually and cinematically: Hold onto your socks. Among his more audacious (and easily summarized) gambits is a moment where Cesar calls a press conference and takes a question from a live person in the room, who, at least in my screening, stumbled up on stage with a flashlight and a microphone stand, did his part, and then vanished back into the dark. So long, fourth wall.

Among the many delights of imagining how Megalopolis will play in the real world and not in the auteur-friendly environs of Cannes is wondering just how Coppola and the film’s distributor, whoever it may end up being, plan to execute this idea at scale. Will there be a hundred people with microphone stands, waiting in the wings at weekday matinees? But to fret over the practicalities is perhaps to underestimate the foxiness behind Coppola’s apparent madness. As the recent flood of obituaries for Roger Corman remind us, Coppola was among the raft of future titans, including Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Jonathan Demme, who got their start making no-budget films for the B-movie king, and Coppola’s epic is as informed by the lowbrow imperatives of drive-in schlock as it is by highfalutin philosophies. (You can certainly see Corman’s influence in the movie’s regular deployment of gratuitous female nudity, while it keeps its male stars buttoned to the chin.) Where the narrative going into Cannes was dominated by stories about Coppola’s excesses and the movie’s borderline-unreleasable state, now it’s balanced out by tales of its inspired lunacy. Subtitled “A Fable,” Megalopolis can be read as a parable of what happens when you let artists take over the world, and while that may not run more smoothly, it’s a heck of a lot more interesting.

Quoting liberally from Marcus Aurelius and Shakespeare, including during an uncut recitation of “To be or not to be” by Adam Driver, Megalopolis is the product of man who has tried to put everything he knows or thinks into one climactic work. And whether or not it all fits (it doesn’t), it’s exhilarating to watch him try. For years, Coppola’s contemporary, George Lucas, who put $115 million of his own money into The Phantom Menace, seemed to have a lock on the most expensive self-financed movie ever made—a record Coppola has now outdone. Megalopolis might not outgross Star Wars: Episode 1, but I know which movie I’d sooner watch twice.

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