Though A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III is only his second film as writer/director, Roman Coppola has already established a pretty specific MO. Pendulous vacillation between emotional realism and outlandish fantasy? Check. Story set approximately forty years in the past? Check. Gleeful re-appropriation of the fashion trends and filmic techniques of the period? Check. References, both sly and blatant, to other films? Check. Retro soundtrack composed and performed by an obscure, contemporary pop/rock artist? Check. Unreliable narrator whose self involvement and willful reshaping of the particulars of his story allow fact and fantasy to blend into an amorphous, beguiling whole? Check.
This is not to say that Coppola is repeating himself; rather it attests to the specificity of his vision. While not as meticulous — and certainly not as restrained — as his frequent collaborator Wes Anderson, Coppola is another filmmaker whose works can sometimes feel like a culmination of nebulous images and feelings strung together by a loosely defined story. When this works — as it does in Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (which was co-written by Coppola, who also served as second-unit director) — it owes as much to the director’s control of tone and pace as it does to the strength of its individual images. When it doesn’t — as in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the first Anderson film for which Coppola directed second unit — what’s left is a frustratingly uneven collection of moments which, however inspired, never coalesce into a greater whole. Pitched somewhere between these two extremes is Charles Swan.
As the titular Charles Swan, a successful graphic designer and incorrigible lothario whose creative faculties have walked out the door right behind his embittered ex-girlfriend (Katheryn Winnick), Charlie Sheen plays a character he knows well. Insensitive, impulsive, aloof, self-destructive, and misogynistic, Swan isn’t too far removed from the public image Sheen has cultivated for himself. Whether it was the role that was written for him or he who was born to play the role is regardless; what’s important is Sheen’s great ability to make such a deplorable character charming and to illustrate — without underlining — the sadness and dissatisfaction underneath.
After a health scare leaves him bedridden in the hospital for a few days, Swan reconnects with his sister Izzy (Patricia Arquette), best friend Kirby (Jason Schwartzman), and business manager Saul (Bill Murray) who admonishes him that his extravagant tastes and reckless behavior are putting the company, as well as his own life, in danger. He’s well past deadline to deliver the cover art for Kirby’s latest comedy record and in danger of losing the commission, but he’s so shaken up by his girlfriend’s departure that he is unable to concentrate on his work. Despite the heckling of his secretary (Aubrey Plaza), Swan neglects his work and spirals deeper into his own subconscious.
The fantasy sequences — of which there are many — are the film’s defining element, but their effectiveness will largely depend upon each viewer’s personal temperament. In his first film, CQ, Coppola allowed himself the latitude to indulge his jones for cartoonish set pieces by having his protagonist work on a big budget sexy sci-fi espionage romp in the vein of Barbarella and Modesty Blaise. Throw in a little Goddardian anarchy and no one bats an eye when fact and fantasy start to blur; the trick, and the key to that film’s success, was Coppola’s ability to establish two linear and consistent sets of rules, both framed by the visual and narrative motif of the protagonist’s video diary, and to slowly and adroitly overlap them. In the literal mind of Charles Swan, there are no rules and no linear narrative. Instead, there are simply a number of independent childlike fantasias which illustrate very little about the fantasizer beyond his self-evident disconnect with reality.
What the film is, however, is visually inspired, frequently entertaining, and downright charming. Much of the latter is thanks to the cast, who are clearly game for Coppola’s whims. Schwartzman hams it up admirably and Murray’s delivery alternately lends comedic zing and emotional heft to even the most banal exposition. Arquette, whose hair is as frazzled as her wits, is perfect in the sort of role Joan Cusack is usually called upon to play, and I loved the brief cameos from Dermot Mulroney, Stephen Dorff, and the perennially underutilized Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Charles Swan tends to stumble over itself in the final act as it races toward a resolution after a mere eighty minutes, but there’s something to be said for not overstaying one’s welcome. The film ends with the photoshoot for Kirby’s album cover, which involves all of the characters from Swan’s previous fantasies crowding around Kirby inside of the proverbial kitchen sink. It is, quite explicitly, a metaphor for the film. Whether you find Swan’s concept — and, by virtue of that, Coppola’s own filmic conceit — a cop out or a masterstroke is a matter of opinion. Of whichever mind you are, however, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III is a captivating kaleidoscope of sound and image, both irreverent and heartfelt.