A scene from Charles Swan III." (Handout )
A vibe in no particular search of a plot, "A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III" channels '70s mellow and '30s style through a prism of California dreamin'. In this Charlie Sheen vehicle, the fizzy mood and visuals are often, well, winning.
For his second stint in the feature director's chair (after 2001's "CQ"), Roman Coppola has fashioned a noodling indulgence that's alternately freewheeling and dead in the water. The on-screen action never matters or fully engages, but for Sheen fans who are tracking his ongoing image rehabilitation, and those willing to go with the cinematic flow, the self-conscious exercise in low-budget dress-up offers some rewards.
As the title character, Sheen is a playboy in 1970s Los Angeles, a superstar designer of album covers who's in the throes of a midlife breakdown after his girlfriend (Katheryn Winnick) walks out. Lovelorn, world-weary, self-absorbed, Swan is a charmer and a whiner, and Coppola lets echoes of Sheen's public persona fill in the gaps in the writer-director's flimsily conceived antihero.
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An animated-collage dissection of Swan's brain reveals, no surprise, an obsession with women. But the film is pretty tame on the matter of sex. Fantasy sequences give vent to his sense of being under siege by females who won't cut him any slack. These skits (in a film of skits) ride the line between period-specific POV and old-school offensiveness — a tribe of lovelies in skimpy American Indian costumes goes on the warpath, for example — and in any case aren't particularly funny.
For all his distress, Swan is not without emotional support — from his singer-comedian best friend (Jason Schwartzman); novelist sister (Patricia Arquette); sad-sack business manager (Bill Murray, going further than anything else in the film with his discomfiting, on-a-dime mood shifts) and design-studio partner (Aubrey Plaza).
The earnest passages mostly just lie there; the film works best on its frilly, exuberant surface, as a valentine to Streamline Moderne, Pop Art and L.A. Among the iconic locations Coppola uses, Randy's Donuts is especially well chosen for a terrific nighttime scene involving an illicit purchase. Liam Hayes' jazzy rock score fits the not-quite-real vintage milieu to a T.
Like the films of Wes Anderson, with whom Coppola has collaborated as a screenwriter, "Charles Swan" embraces a world of kooky eccentrics. But without the underlying emotional weight that ballasts Anderson's confections, it's all effervescence. Swan's one-note woe is not enough.
"A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III." MPAA rating: R for language and some nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. At the Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood.
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