Roman Coppola’s new film, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, finds Charlie Sheen in the role of the titular protagonist: an endlessly narcissistic and inexplicably famous graphic designer whose two main loves (aside from himself) are women and booze. Though he is ostensibly acting, those traits, combined with the character’s name—almost identical to the actor’s own—make it impossible to watch Swan without feeling that Sheen is playing anyone other than himself, as made notorious by his most recent stint in the headlines.
But how interesting is it to see Charlie Sheen play Charlie Sheen? Engaging in an admirable yet ultimately unsatisfying discourse with reality, the film boils down to little more than an extension of Sheen’s recent one-man show. In this way, the film is inherently flawed and hopelessly misdirected, a snake swallowing its own tail. The actor and director's lifelong friendship is the entire reason for the film’s existence (Swan is even more disappointing once you consider the fact that the result of the two men’s fathers’ collaboration was Apocalypse Now), yet as presented in the film, Sheen is nowhere near compelling enough to justify the muse/star treatment.
Swan feels like an inside joke, meaningful only to the filmmakers, a Playboy-chic fantasy far more impressed by its own intimations of psychodrama than any viewer will be. An attempt at a tale of profound existential woe, Sheen’s character is left by his girlfriend, sending him into a downward spiral of self-pity and hollow introspection, his dealings with his friends and family interspersed with numerous live-action enactments of his daydreams and fantasies. This promises insight into Charles Swan and, by extension, Charlie Sheen, but the façade wears thin, almost immediately devolving into glad-handed wankery that becomes downright exhausting.
There are no surprises, no revelations and almost no fun. In their place is forced, painfully self-conscious quirkiness and a bounty of neuroses that ring false. Coppola—who co-wrote both Moonrise Kingdom and the Darjeeling Limited—comes off like a second-rate Wes Anderson. Jason Schwartzman (Coppola’s cousin), playing Charlie’s comedian/musician and best friend, is once again typecast as a vaguely eccentric mensch, while Bill Murray, his manager, successfully keeps a straight face (much to the actor’s credit). Liam Hayes’ Seventies-inspired soundtrack comes off as variations on a theme: the same tepid, retro-worship indie schmaltz done over and over again.
There is, however, an undeniable kinetic energy to the proceedings, a visual inventiveness to the flamboyant pop art mélange that defines the mise-en-scene. Still, Coppola can’t art-direct his way out of a lousy script.
Swan is the latest development in Sheen’s very real attempts at public redemption and personal catharsis, turning the baring of his soul into commercial fodder. The film’s attempts at ironic distance—elements of innocuous mockery such as the character being perpetually clad in a pair of purple-tinted sunglasses—indicate a newly acquired, if dubious, self-awareness on the part of the actor; a moral engagement that he believes will make him a more sympathetic character in the eyes of the public. He may very well be on a quest for self-discovery, but the film definitely isn’t going to convince anyone of that. Now that Sheen seems to care about the consequences of his actions, the question is, why should we?