Charles (“Charlie”) Swan III, the name of the lead character in Roman Coppola’s new film, seems designed to both draw obvious parallels to the actor who portrays him, Charlie Sheen, and suggest he might be some sort of descendant of Marcel Proust’s genial womanizer Charles Swann. But far from enriching the material, such an allusive strategy is instead all too indicative of Coppola’s grab-bag approach, simultaneously playing on audience curiosity about Sheen’s infamous public meltdown, using that curiosity to fill in the gaps of the film’s underdeveloped narrative, and coupling it with a random reference just for the hell of it.
Because the movie is called A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, and because it takes that titular mandate seriously, devoting no shortage of screen time to enacting the lead character’s fantasies, Coppola’s movie grants itself license to throw whatever pastiche-heavy shtick up on the screen it wants. From the opening sequence in which a pop-art collage (largely devoted to naked women) emerges from an animated image of Swan’s brain to a western fantasy complete with women dressed as scantily clad Native Americans and Bill Murray popping up as John Wayne, no half-baked one-off idea in the writer-director’s head goes unindulged. This love of random allusion extends as well to Swan’s waking life, in which he wanders through an oppressively over-designed amalgam of period signifiers ranging roughly from the ’50s to the ’70s that render the setting an indeterminate pop-culture mélange.
In so much as Swan is the head of a graphic design firm, as well as a sex-obsessed male, this makes sense. But mostly, this fantasy world, which dominates the film’s first half before largely giving way to real-world drama in the second, does little to explain what makes this character tick. While it’s easy enough to recognize what we know about Sheen, the actor, in his portrayal of a successful middle-aged womanizer experiencing a breakdown, Coppola does little to invest Swan with any other distinguishing characteristics that make his plight at all interesting to the audience. Smarting over his girlfriend’s recent departure, Swan loses control of his Cadillac (an antique model on which he’s painted bacon on one side and eggs on the other, because why not?), parks in a swimming pool and ends up in the hospital where he seems to be suffering from some sort of heart trouble. After being released from care, this self-obsessed man, increasingly fixated on getting his ex-girlfriend back, borrows surveillance equipment, gets rip-roaring drunk, and, mid-bender, shows up at her house to spy on her.
But like everything else Swan does, which also includes throwing a garbage pail through the window of a publishing house, it’s all okay. The film’s indulgence of this vaguely monstrous figure is as stunning as its not-so-casual misogyny (one fantasy sequence features a coterie of women known as the Secret Society of Ball Busters), and its female characters’ inexplicable willingness to simply forgive any and all of Swan’s indiscretions. The film speeds ahead with almost gleeful disinterest in dealing with the narrative challenges it sets up before resolving them in the most perfunctory ways imaginable. It feels as if whole chunks of the film have been left on the cutting-room floor, or as if Coppola, having dispensed with his surface-happy, surreal set pieces, has suddenly lost all interest in dealing in any significant way with the character whose mind he’s supposedly probed for the better part of the movie.