The second feature directed by Roman Coppola, "A Glimpse Into the Mind of Charles Swan III" is technically well made, but suffers from the absence of any forceful ideas. Visually, the film is certainly an assured work, retaining the slick color schemes of Edward Hopper by way of "Mad Men" with a plastic exuberance reminiscent of Russ Meyer. But its story is comparatively washed out, never deviating from an uneventful trajectory. Not even Charlie Sheen, in the lead role, can bring the movie the sensationalistic appeal associated with his name these days.
As the titular Charles Swan III, Sheen plays a well-to-do graphic designer whose girlfriend (Katheryn Winnick) grows fed up with his many affairs and a self-obsessed attitude and decided to leave him. You can hardly blame her. Trapped between despair and outright aimlessness, Charles does little except feel sorry for himself as the spectator is invited to enter his mind. Unsurprisingly, the perspective of an over-privileged designer tends to be rather claustrophobic and devoid of inspiration. His downward spiral into depression is spruced up by picturesque dream sequences that echo Coppola's past collaborations with Wes Anderson. Even when ostensibly desperate and saddened by his loss, Charles's sentimental affliction does not attract sympathy. When a pair of Russian taxi drivers sell Charles a tin of caviar for $800, the laugh is definitely on him.
While brilliantly executed on their own terms, Coppola's various stylistic inventions are often incoherent and run counter to whatever narrative development the story offers up. The other characters are little more than props: Charles' friend (Jason Schwartzman), sister (Patricia Arquette) and assorted minor roles all figure into the director's panting search for an eccentricity that never congeals into something authentic. Coppola delivers a mild pastiche of westerns, musicals and dusty 70s comics. Is it mise-en-scene of aesthetic fixation? Artistic intention of playful diversion? The jury is still out.
In accordance with the protagonist's vainglory, all the elements of the film are subordinate to an individualistic vision that not only fails to convince but also to justify its own posturing. Even Bill Murray, in a minor role, looks like he accidentally stumbled into a set where direction is entrusted upon the vagaries of an erratic if savvy beginner. Like Charles' romantic life, which consists of an endless series of female trophies, the film keeps accumulating cinematic toys have no real function. Simultaneously boring and almost doggedly uncreative, "A Glimpse Into the Mind of Charles Swan III" is inoffensively mediocre.
Still, viewers may have a hard time completely rejecting the film's indulgences, which maintain a certain innocent quality. It is tempting to read the whole thing as vaguely biographical, given the public identity of its star, since the story involves a man burdened by fame and talent but lacking determination. But such appeal is merely academic for this directionless project, a hodgepodge of awkward storytelling and bizarre digressions as hard to love as it is to hate. Criticwire grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Set for an early 2013 release through new distributor A24, the film could generate some media interest for its lead actor and some arthouse audiences may be drawn by the allure of the Coppola brand, but poor word of mouth and mixed reviews will likely limit its long-term box office prospects. It has better chances on VOD.
Editor's note: This review originally ran during the Rome International Film Festival. "A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III" is available on video-on-demand platforms via FilmBuff starting today.