Almost exactly two years ago, Charlie Sheen started a highly public meltdown that translated his acting fame into the kind of ravenous notoriety that’s an inch wide and a mile deep. Over a few months time, a celebrated film and television actor devolved into a reality star. We watched it in real-time, and even when the train had already wrecked, Sheen seemed impervious to the truth of what he’d done to his image.
For those who didn’t tire of the schtick by his Comedy Central Roast in September of 2011, and for those who are thirsty for some severely watered down tiger blood, Sheen stars in Roman Coppola’s A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III as a boring version of himself.
In it, his character is a delusional ladies man who exhaustingly relives the break-up with his latest love Ivana (Katheryn Winnick) after a car accident sends him to the hospital with the sympathies of best friend Kirby Star (Jason Schwartzman), sister Izzy (Patricia Arquette) and accountant Saul (Bill Murray). His only other companion is his brain, a terrible thing that sends him into fantasy after fantasy. Anything to avoid what’s really going on.
Not surprisingly, Sheen is both the biggest asset and the largest liability for the film. There are flashes here of the kind of sharp comedic timing he showed in Hot Shots, moments where you almost like what he’s doing. Ultimately the fourth wall is so broken by his looming personal history – an element that Coppola enhances by having the character and actor share a name and disposition – that a handful of gold simply can’t justify the mountain of boring that it’s buried in.
First of all, this really is the Charlie Sheen Show. It opens with a tacked-on prologue where a mysterious psychotherapist voice explains Charles Swan’s character to us. Coppola believes telling is better than showing apparently. Swan’s thoughts, we’re told, are occupied by naked women and heroic visions of himself. He has little room for the friends and family in his life, but the one memory he can’t block out is of the shoes Ivana threw on their bedroom floor before storming out of his apartment for good.
It’s a poetic idea, but in an excellent example of how plodding Coppola makes the exercise, it takes an egregiously long time for Swan to drive to the hills, toss her shoes off a cliff, fail at that, and roll his car down the hill. As if to minimize its humor potential like a Bela Tarr style protest against traditional form, the whole sequence is shot like Coppola wanted to make sure everyone individually gets where it’s headed before delivering the punch. It’s padded heavily, and features an inexcusably cheap-looking version of a car crash that highlights exactly how poorly constructed the rest of the film is going to be. A fantasy-set explosion looks excellent, but mostly everything else looks terrible. It might have been on purpose, to create a sort of live-action cartoon, but the effect isn’t nearly consistent enough if that’s the case.
But the biggest issue here is Sheen. He’s the anti-Daniel Day-Lewis, letting himself shine through Swan with every little smile and quip. Even while trying, he never sinks into the role, but characters consistently yelling “Oh, Charlie!” doesn’t help either. Of course, it might be a contractual hangup considering Sheen has played a character named Charlie in his past three movies (Due Date, She Wants Me and this). It ends up feeling at worst like a filmic apology letter where Sheen admits to knowing what he was like during the meltdown and at best like an uninspired journey through the fairly dull life of a middle-aged guy with relationship problems.
Ultimately, something as simple as Sheen playing Sheen helps to spell doom for the narrative because it instantly places all of the actor’s baggage onto a character we should learn on our own. His often-wooden performance adds to the issue, but more so than that, the character is just plain uninteresting. He’s not given much of anything to work with.
Swan’s real life is of little consequence. Side characters are paraded by in roles just barely larger than cameos, but even more disappointing are the unimaginative imaginary sequences that the “real-life” scenes live solely (and often awkwardly) to set up. They are the easiest renditions of fantasies – with neither colorful visuals or creative structure. Bill Murray effortlessly saves a few of them, but that’s to be expected, and hanging what should be engaging (or at least character-informative) sequences on the one-liners of a veteran is hardly good filmmaking. Everything feels like a first draft. And it’s the bulk of the movie.
It’s also repetitive, following Swan through the same concepts dressed up in different fetish gear until he takes a weak-willed shot at redemption, but even the insanity of life spiraling out of control is put on mute. The wildest things the supposedly unhinged Swan does are throwing a rock through a window and buying over-priced caviar. Seriously. That’s as exciting as it gets. Chaos does not reign.
Unfortunately, Coppola’s empty use of quirk is used throughout as a crutch for the storytelling. It’s set in the 70s because, you know, why not. He designs out of an old touring bus because, you know, why not. His car has decals of eggs and bacon in it because, you get it. None of it does much to define the character or play into the plot, and it’s also not so throughly crafted that it deserves applause as its own entity. Again, it all looks fairly cheap.
In fact, shortcuts are the overarching theme of the film’s failures. Just as Swan uses the easy path as his life mantra (and remains squeaky clean through no fault of his own), the production design and script are built on using one or two passwords to signify bigger elements. And that’s why Sheen takes over so much of Swan’s personality – there is no character there without the actor’s charisma. We never see Swan doing anything creative, but we hear that he’s done work that’s made him successful. We never see Swan being all that wacky, but we know he’s got eggs on his car. We never see his relationship with Ivana as being special, but we know she used to bury old toothbrushes in her backyard, so that’s a thing too. It’s as if Coppola and company marked all the boxes and went home for the day.
To drive that home, we get several everlasting scenes where Swan looks out thoughtfully (usually from inside a car) even though we know nothing is going through his head except the naked women and heroic versions of himself from the opening. Swan as a character is wholly summed up in those few moments, which makes it easy to know whether or not you’re going to enjoy spending time with him for the next hour and a half.
The Upside: One or two shining moments from Sheen; great work from the underused Schwartzman, Murray and Arquette
The Downside: A slow pace despite its short runtime; no story to speak of; fantasy segments that read like first drafts; too many shortcuts; an unlikeable lead played by an actor who overshadows his part
On the Side: Coppola is currently up for an Oscar for his work co-writing Moonrise Kingdom.