Megalopolis, Cannes review: Francis Ford Coppola’s $120m self-funded epic is no car crash

Megalopolis, Francis Ford Coppola’s self-funded $120m (£94m) epic, certainly isn’t another Godfather or Apocalypse Now, but it’s at least bursting with ideas. Anticipation was high ahead of its Cannes premiere on Thursday night. The filmmaker spent decades trying to get Megalopolis off the ground. What if it was no good? And what to make of the recent claims of chaos on its set? Ultimately, this isn’t the car crash it could have been. It is, though, deeply flawed and very eccentric.

The setting is a futuristic New York bearing echoes of ancient Rome. The city is close to bankruptcy under its corrupt mayor, Giancarlo Esposito’s Cicero, but its rich young things don’t seem to care – they exist hedonistically, partying like there’s no tomorrow. Cesar Catalina (Adam Driver), meanwhile, is a Nobel prize-winning architect, physicist and all-round visionary. His lover Wow Platinum, a go-getting journalist played by Aubrey Plaza in full, pouting Marilyn Monroe mode, describes him as “handsome, wacko and anal as hell” – Driver plays him like a more cerebral Bruce Wayne.

Cesar has discovered a mysterious – and never fully explained – new substance called “megalon”. Detesting Cicero and eager to sweep him from office, he hopes to use “megalon” to build “a city people can dream about”. Complicating matters is Cicero’s precocious daughter Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel), who falls in love with Cesar, while his many enemies plot to bring him down.

Megalopolis is full of bizarre moments. At one point Cesar suddenly recites Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. In another, Jon Voight – playing a sleazy banker – shoots a rival in the buttocks with a golden arrow. Orgiastic early nightclub scenes rekindle memories of Tinto Brass’s Caligula. There’s a nod, too, to the Godfather movies in a cleverly choreographed assassination scene.

However, Coppola’s stylised and theatrical storytelling doesn’t do his actors any favours. He’s drawn together some very big names, but most give mannered and occasionally throwaway performances. Dustin Hoffman pops up as one of Cicero’s fixers, but is given little to say or do. Coppola’s sister Talia Shire and nephew Jason Schwartzman appear briefly. Shia LaBeouf, at least, is very good value as Cesar’s cross-dressing, power-hungry cousin – his work here certainly isn’t subtle, but it’s at least energetic. Laurence Fishburne lends a little gravitas, too, as Cesar’s devoted driver and assistant. He’s also the film’s narrator, providing earnest commentary that helps bridge gaps between the haphazard plotting.

Visually, Megalopolis is often dazzling. Skyscrapers are shown in golden-hued light, while the film’s futuristic cityscape rekindles memories of Fritz Lang’s silent era classic Metropolis, as well as those playfully kitsch fantasies that French film pioneer Georges Melies used to turn out in the early days of cinema. Coppola is also making plenty of well-observed points about the “broken” US political system, and the media’s voracious appetite for scandal.

Cerebral Bruce Wayne: Adam Driver in ‘Megalopolis’ (Entertainment Film Distributors)
Cerebral Bruce Wayne: Adam Driver in ‘Megalopolis’ (Entertainment Film Distributors)

You can’t help but marvel at his gumption (and folly) in making a blockbuster in which town planning features so prominently, and characters quote ancient philosophers like Plutarch and Marcus Aurelius at length. Box office prospects for Megalopolis look wretched (it also remains without a US distributor), though it will be no surprise at all if the film achieves cult status by dint of its wondrous oddity.

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola. Starring: Adam Driver, Giancarlo Esposito, Nathalie Emmanuel, Aubrey Plaza, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Voight, Laurence Fishburne, Dustin Hoffman. 138 mins.

‘Megalopolis’ is awaiting UK release