Roman Coppola, currently an Oscar nominee for co-writing the original screenplay of the sublime Moonrise Kingdom with collaborator Wes Anderson, marks his sophomore solo project as writer/director with A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III. Elaborately art directed and set in some sort of cinematic rumination of the 1970s with an perilously ironic squint, the film centering around a self indulgent playboy, played by Charlie Sheen in a riff on this turbulent persona, feels more like a home movie lark. Coppola cobbles together family and friends, using his mythical movie making namesake for an eclectic vintage Los Angeles tale that for all its showboating and novelty adds up to a mindless and shallow endeavor, a silly and forgetful vanity project. And even those inclined or curious on the latest opportunity for career rehabilitation for Sheen may well be turned off, not because the actor isn't trying despite its lunatic nods of self-parody, but because the film that surrounds his off-putting character is far too alien and dreary to get plugged into. And no amount of heavily dressed up, albeit laudable production values can forsake the fact that Charles Swan is a merely a 1970s infused pastiche, an idiosyncratic oddity all dressed up with no place to go.
The film opens on a black stage where our self-entitled title character is met for a full dissection of the inter-workings of his brain. Out of this unadulterated id, comes a fluid animated segment of the topless cartoon women that make up Charles' subconscious-- it's the wittiest segment of the entire film. We learn through this, not just the expected Sheen-ian trait of womanizing and self-absorption, but that he's recently broken up with his latest girlfriend-- the beautiful, if slight vacant Ivana (Katheryn Winnick.) Displeased upon finding pictures of her strewn about in a drawer of past conquests, Ivana leaves in a huff, making a shambles of his swinging hermetic existence. Reaching a tailspin, Charles knows little else to do but set off in his Cadillac (dressed in the mental ward ready gear of robe and signature shades), carries through with a petty and childish revenge act and promptly crashes his car into a swimming pool. He enters the hospital with the threat (or tease) of a heart ailment, which prompts an endless stream of daydreams, flashbacks and hallucinations. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III uses this as a platform to dig into the underbelly of self-entitlement, hoping to shed light not just on his particular breed of piggish behavior, but to ultimately find redemption from it as well. It's a little like All That Jazz-lite minus the humor, insight or catharsis.
It's not so much in that Charles Swan III by design is such an unlikable cad that's so troubling, it's the argument that Coppola persists so in that there's a life beyond the frivolity of girls and substance abuse in his favor. He presents the argument thoroughly, as in doting characters obsessed with him, but hardly follows through with any substantive qualities. While in the hospital, Charles is doted and given the whole tough love treatment by his followers: his hippie sister and novelist Isabelle (Patricia Arquette), best pal and misanthropic comedian Kirby (Jason Schwartzman, a Coppola himself) and sad sack business manager Saul (Bill Murray.) And while a great bulk of the film takes place in Charles' muddled dreamland, where in which even himself seems to loathe himself. little is expressed or greatly felt. Charles is still a thin archetypal lothario only slightly more emphasized by the larger than life character/caricature that's playing him. Sheen, for his credit, seems a good sport with the events, but gives off the same breezy nonchalance that made him a popular sitcom star rather than giving much effort to trump up any sort of soul for his rich man child loser. Throughout the film he professes his true love and unmitigated rage for Ivana, but there's nary a sliver of rooting reaction to their story, nor particularly his personal journey to self improvement.
Coppola shoots his lithe and brief eight-six minute Glimpse with a creative flair, of which can be diagnosed through his gene pool as well as his frequent collaborations with Anderson, and while little here bares much of a pop or an emotional connection, the staging is from time to time witty and nimbly constructed. Even throughout the lame hallucinations, which include Charles' reawakening as an Astaire-like song and dance man while at his funeral, a sexist cowboy fantasy where scantily clad natives come to attack, or the seemingly desperate imagining of the Ball Busters Club, a secret female contingent (headed by Ivana) that again pounce on scummy cads like Charles and Kirby, there's a small gust of visual panache. One wishes the dialogue had been punchier and more skillfully acute at zeroing in on this particular breed of narcissism. As is were left with a bare bone, nearly meaningless exercise of vanity at its most vapid. In the end, Charles gets loaded, commits needless acts of vandalism and trespassing and is branded a hero and all around sweet son of a bitch by his family and friends. And thus ends Roman Coppola's family vacation. D+