“A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:24.
We don’t get enough fiascoes. Sure there are plenty of bad movies out there, but most aim low and miss the bar. It takes something special, some innate drive, to produce something really misbegotten, to conceive the ill-conceived. When Nathan Rabin of the A.V. Club writes a “Year of Flops” entry and dubs it a fiasco, you can almost sense his half-smile of admiration. Good for you, he seems to say, for being brave enough to fail so spectacularly.
Good for you, “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.” You are a unqualified fiasco.
Charles Swan III is a misogynist who thinks he’s an incurable romantic hero, a middle-aged graphic designer in ’70s Los Angeles who loves neither wisely nor well, but often. His latest girlfriend (Katheryn Winnick) kicks him to the curb for cheating on her, and he wanders the movie in a funk. Writer-director Roman Coppola indeed does give us occasional glimpses into the mind of Charles Swan, and it looks like a water-damaged pile of old Playboys. Scantily-clad women run around everywhere, but what’s remarkable (and ugly) is the level of persecution that Swan feels. In one, bikini-clad women in costume-store Indian outfits go on the warpath against him; in another, a command center of busty women call down airstrikes on men who dare to flirt with other women.
The kicker is that Charles Swan is played by Charlie Sheen, himself a misogynist who thinks he’s some kind of hero — or at least he did, publicly, before his management team muzzled him. Writer-director Roman Coppola (who has co-written some of Wes Anderson’s infinitely better films) seems to think his movie can coast on Sheen’s charms. Except he doesn’t have any. He’s gotten kind of creepy in middle age, and can’t sell any of the wounded-puppy notes that the film requires of him. There’s a scene late in the film when we see a marionette version of Charlie Sheen, dancing around a party and using its little wooden arms to peek up women’s skirts. It’s actually a little less creepy than the real thing.
To see how it might have worked, watch Bill Murray in a small, thankless role as Swan’s agent. He’s also a lothario, but Murray brings such a sad-sack weariness to lines like “Desire is as close as I’ll ever come to happiness” that you kind of feel for the guy. We never feel anything for Swan except a mild revulsion, like that feeling the night before you get the flu.
Coppola dresses up his film with all kinds of ’70s Pop Art kitsch — Swan drives a Cadillac that has eggs and bacon airbrushed on the doors, and his office has a couch that looks like a giant Chicago hot dog with the works. Jason Schwartzman’s biggest contribution to the movie is his Marjoe Gortner perm, Patricia Arquette (as Swan’s sister) dresses in every scene like she’s on her way to the Golden Globes on Gil Gerard’s arm. You get the feeling that production design is really where Coppola’s heart is at, rather than character or story. He can imitate the look of a Hal Ashby movie like “Harold & Maude,” but can’t get below the sun-baked surface to anything interesting.
Swan spends the film alienating everyone around him, and then, magically he goes to the office Christmas party and everyone loves him again, without explanation. Then the movie just kind of ends after a mercifully brisk 84 minutes, and the actors start introducing themselves to the camera, which pulls back to reveal the entire cast and crew. This seems like one desperate, last-ditch attempt at audience empathy (“See, real people made this movie! Nice people! Please don’t be mad at us!”) And, like the rest of the movie, it doesn’t work.