Roman Coppola, son of Francis, brother to Sofia, is the popularly ignored scion who made the terrific but scarcely-seen CQ (2001). He gained some kudos recently when he co-wrote the bittersweet goofball fantasia that was Wes Anderson’s Moonlight Kingdom (2012), but his subsequent return to the director’s chair with this ungainly titled romp hardly represented a triumph, for generally contemptuous reviews met it. Many of those seemed to be aimed more at the perception that star Charlie Sheen was playing a version of his much-derided public persona, than at the film itself. Charles Swan is certainly no noxious disaster, whilst also a long way from being a masterpiece; rather it represents a peculiar, entertaining, rather too wilfully scattershot spin on Roman’s already well-codified interests and style. Sheen is the eponymous antihero, a fraying Los Angeles eccentric who runs a formerly prosperous graphic design studio, currently flailing because his mind is on everything but his work. The setting is hazily period, the milieu a faintly satiric, Neverland version of early ‘70s LA, supposedly a time and place when the normally utilitarian reflexes of modern culture gave way briefly to an age of extroverted playfulness and sovereign largesse of lifestyle in the Counterculture's fallout, whilst anticipating future days when jobs would become gigs and marriages become things.
Storm-clouds are brewing, however: killjoy feminism is encroaching to torment the lads enjoying the Me Decade's wide-open window of roué self-indulgence, even as these males negotiate emotional maturity, only a decade or more too late. Charlie finds himself bewildered by the depth of his own anguish over the bust-up of his relationship with Ivana (the intriguing Katheryn Winnick), a younger actress. The relationship finally blew up thanks to Ivana finding a photo of herself in his drawer cache of photographs of ladies fair and unfair. Charlie disastrously tries to rid himself of Ivana’s large shoe collection in an angry escapade that concludes with Charlie and his car sunken in a swimming pool, and the sack filled with shoes dangling from a tree branch high above. Hospitalised with what he fears is heart trouble but which turns out to be heartburn instead, Charlie finds solace with his business manager, Saul (Bill Murray), who’s going through a bumpy patch with his wife, and his pal, the comedian Kirby Star (Jason Schwartzman), whose comically misogynist shtick has made him popular. Charlie drifts in and out of imaginary landscapes where he imagines himself being persecuted by exes, including the formidable Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), even at his graveside. Eventually Kirby suggests that Charlie do as he once did, at great risk to his self-esteem and reputation, and bug Ivana’s apartment to find out just why she left.
Coppola shows plentiful evidence that the great eye he displayed in CQ is still in full working order, in the film’s lushly coloured visuals, surprisingly well-crafted and gorgeously shot on a low budget. Coppola’s references to late ‘60s pop art styles in dress and design often feel like a modern hipster's specious fetishism of former cool. But there’s also a constant sensation of actual artistic ambition, insofar that Coppola seems to want to bring aspects of that catch-all spirit back into play in contemporary cinema. The opening sequence, supposedly psychotherapy of the anti-hero, sees cut-out animations, replete with magazine eroticism and ludicrous self-comparisons, spill from his head. Coppola’s sense of fun infuses deliberately silly, highly entertaining fantasy scenes. In one sequence, Charlie and Kirby imagine they’re cowboys intruding upon a tribe of nubile Indian chicks, dressed like they’ve stumbled out of some Pirelli Calendar photo shoot, only for it to turn into a pitched battle where the two men are rescued by Murray dressed as John Wayne. Later he’s a secret service agent saving them from a secret society of vengeful women, mimicking a scene in Kirby’s comedy act, with Ivana and Kate, dressed in absurd SS-stripper garb, try to gun them down from an attack helicopter after they use too many cheesy chat-up lines on café waitresses. Coppola’s gift for pastiching the visual lexicon of retro genre fare, so ebullient in CQ, resurges ebulliently here. Moreover, there’s a clever game played out here, Coppola’s through-the-looking-glass take on the affectations of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies seeing the smart-ass playboy as spy hero suddenly faced with castration anxiety, chased down by malevolent uber-femmes in Blue Thunder.
One aspect of CQ that made it cheekily refreshing was its empathy for its creative hero’s oddball, slightly alienated worldview and skewed needs, on the cusp of new experiences he may not have been ready for, but coming on regardless. The sense of crumbling security and exhilarating new possibility found in break-ups seems to be Roman’s key theme: where in CQ he neatly managed to both sustain a note of romantic longing whilst pulling a fairly original twist on the usual moral lesson of such stories, Charles Swan is more overtly self-satirising, but less interesting, overindulging its heroes’ gauche world-view more than a little, with a level of irony that’s insufficient. Where CQ’s lead seemed genuinely talented, the vitality of Charlie’s creativity never seems particularly important or endangered (although plenty of amusing facsimiles for it are provided throughout). The gnawing pressure on him, whether he can get ass in gear and produce Kirby’s new record cover on the way to salvaging the business, is raised only to be glossed over and then dismissed. Narrative urgency goes out the window in what rather degenerates into a series of comedy-drama sketches, replete with celebrity pal cameos from the likes of Dermot Mulroney and Aubrey Plaza.
The truths of accepting the personal flaws and divergences of character that can condemn seemingly fine relationships are acknowledged and indeed examined with some weight. But the film’s brief running time and preference for a generally more buoyant tone means that its best instincts are all glimpsed in frustrating patches. The best moments here tend to be the most sharply emotional and contrapuntal to this general levity. Particularly great is a depiction of one of Charlie’s fights with Ivana, taking place within his car as it passes through a car wash, both the industrial clamour and the personal rage drowned out by melancholy pop, an islet of perfect expressive synergy. Similarly fine, if a complete stylistic opposite, is Charlie’s epistle to Ivana after she catches him trying to spy on her, letting go of his heartbreak even in the act of stating he wants to do anything but that. In such moments, Charles Swan becomes what it aspires to be, a bittersweet portrait of a middle-aged boy-man being put through an introspective wringer. It also serves as a fair reminder that Sheen is still an actor, rather than part walking performance-art, part faux-beatnik poonhound. Charlie has savoir fare, rattling off impeccable Spanish to his housekeeper whilst fondling his pet toucan, nicely noting Sheen’s non-Anglo background, recalling the faint tension of outsider status underlying his son-of-success and transmuting his over-large persona into a hip-dandy polymath.
As he did with CQ, Coppola references the crisis-of-the-creator theme, viewed though associative fantasias and realist reportage, found in Fellini’s 8½ (1963), whilst also perhaps equally acknowledging some Fellini knock-offs like Mike Sarne’s Joanna (1968), Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979). The spirit of his father’s You’re a Big Boy Now (1966) also reverberates. But whereas 8½ was given body by the way darkness and light, reality and egocentric indulgence were constantly alternated in a needling, disconcerting fashion, Coppola doesn’t give enough of the dark, the substance, the rude enquiry into its hero’s blowhard tendencies, the urgent investigation of what really ails him, turning private exegesis into pop culture romp. The weaknesses of Coppola’s over-reliance on such models become apparent, especially in that what was once risky in their egocentrism is passé and the roster of such mimics confirms such references were long overdone anyway. One forgave Guido Anselmi his bastardries because he was genuinely anguished by them, as a man all too aware that he was the product of a schizoid age: Charles Swan III, on the other hand, is a dude enjoying the Indian summer of his breed.
Unlike his father’s more ambitious, even more overtly autobiographical, and more genuinely, fascinatingly erratic release of the year, Twixt, Charles Swan avoids delving into real depths of emotional damage and the lingering impact of traumatic experience on creative outlook. On the other hand, whereas sister Sofia’s attempts to please critics with passive-aggressive studies in La-La Land alienation have been achieving diminishing results in her last two films, Roman’s goofball spirit at least willingly acknowledges that there are worse things than being successful and talented. Charlie’s relationship with his gifted, flamboyant, but troubled sister Izzy (Patricia Arquette) is hard not to read as a portrait of Roman’s feelings for Sofia. Her attempts to publish her latest book are met with humiliation when the publishing house she wanted rejects it, sparking Charlie to an act of bratty, amusing vengeance as he locates their offices and smashes the door glass, necessitating he then make an expeditious departure just ahead of the cops. All resolves, of course, with Charlie turning creative frustration into its own resolution. At its best, like its hero, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III is louche, dashing, and trenchantly amusing; at its worst it’s a frustrating, shallow study in male narcissism. After more than a decade between turns at bat, Roman is still a great craftsman of images. All he needs now are some images with real urgency to craft.