It was probably a generational thing, but it’s hard to tell exactly when the “head trip” movie fell out of fashion with auteurist filmmakers. Everyone from Otto Preminger to Roger Corman had a go at fashioning trippy, often darkly comedic looks at psychedelics between the mid-60s and the early 80s, but while filmmakers continued to make intensely crazy looking films, most of them tended towards the whimsical (Tim Burton) or overly serious (Gaspar Noe) while never striking a real world balance. In the lugubriously titled A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, Roman Coppala creates a very nice period styled comedy that keeps his characters grounded within an offbeat and purposefully bizarre framework.
Living quite frequently in his own overactive imagination, sex obsessed ad man Charles Swan (Charlie Sheen) tends to avoid the things in his life that make his seem decidedly less heroic. The only thing he seems to fantasize about more than sex and heroism is his own death, while selfishly trying to figure out what kind of impact his passing would have on those around him. After a near “death” crisis of faith, Swan begins to look back on his relationship with his actress ex-wife Ivana (Katheryn Winnick) mournfully while scheming of potential ways to win back her affections.
Coppola has the chops to make this kind of material work, as evidenced by his work with Wes Anderson, his sister Sofia, and his debut feature CQ. He has an eye for the more tragic and humane beats of an offbeat character. Visually adroit and focused on a specific early 70s aesthetic (even though the film never fully specifies when the events are taking place), Coppola makes Swan’s delusions seem stripped down and appropriately left of centre like a young child play incongruously to his surroundings. It makes his central and potentially overpowering titular character seem remarkably human despite being a massive jerk for most of the film.
While Coppola brings some interesting themes to the table, it’s Sheen who is knocking them out of the park. Putting aside unfortunate parallels to the actor’s personal life, this is the best performance he’s had in at least two decades. Sheen’s Swan comes across like an unholy mix of Walter Mitty and Robert Evans; the kind of guy who never seems to take his business or his family as serious as he needs to and never once removes his sunglasses unless he has something else to place over his eyes.
But Swan isn’t completely irredeemable, as he does have a strange sort of loyalty to those closest to him. He constantly strings his musician best friend Kirby along – telling him he will finish the cover for his new album – but they also have an excellent rapport together when business is set aside. In the role of Kirby, Jason Schwartzman gets the chance to showcase the kind of deadpan comedy he’s been known for, but without the sometimes snarky subtext. Kirby is entirely sympathetic when placed next to Charles, but no less a dynamic and flamboyant personality.
Charles also has interesting interactions with his melancholy business manager (Bill Murray, in a strong supporting turn), his sister (Patricia Arquette, who also hasn’t had something this great in quite some time), and his business associate (Aubrey Plaza, for once putting her deadpan style of line reading to appropriate use). As Charles’ former lover, Winnick has to do the lion’s share of the dramatic heavy lifting, and she’s ultimately the glue that holds the film together. It’s easy to see why all of these people gravitate towards Charles and why they can also find themselves equally repulsed by him. They never realize it and the film never spells that out, but they share more in common with the hard partying Swan than they would ever care to let on.
At a brief 86 minutes, it’s hard to tell if a movie of this kind is missing anything or if it would benefit from anything being added to it. If anything, the story itself gets glossed over a bit quickly and it’s used as a framing device to transition between Charles’ fantasies in a lot of ways, but structurally it makes sense and the characters are quite strong enough to make it all overcome any potential shortcomings. After far too long away – behind the camera in the case of Coppola and with good material in the case of Sheen – it’s nice to see an actor and director back doing enjoyable work again.