It would be easy to watch “A Glimpse Inside The Mind of Charles Swan III” with arms folded and a puss on your face. One could certainly allow one's distaste for the lead actor, Charlie Sheen, and his E! Network shenanigans get between you and his performance. Furthermore, one could scoff at some of the sequences whose look and feel can't hide the seams of what is, by Hollywood standards, a microscopic budget. This would, I feel, be doing a disservice to the movie and, frankly, to yourself.
We may know Sheen's a jerk, but that's just because the lid is off. Chances are, a great deal of the art and entertainment you consume is created by people you'd loathe in real life. (Not to be a downer; I'm sure just as much is made by jolly saints!) If you can't divide the work from what you read in People Magazine, you may as well never go to the movies in the first place.
“Swan,” written and directed by longtime friend Roman Coppola, is, however, something of the perfect character for the embattled veteran of the “Torpedo of Truth” tour to take on at this stage in his career. In it, he plays a brilliant graphic designer, with rather pre-feminist “women problems,” who suffers an anxiety attack. From his hospital bed, he recalls the breakup of his most recent lost love (Katheryn Winnick) and lets his mind snap into fantasies involving his best friend, a “rock star” comic played by Jason Schwartzman. When they aren't behaving in exaggerated, mannerly fashion in the narrative of the film, they go “inside the mind,” in “Billy Liar” or “Annie Hall” style and play cowboys and Indians, for example.
It took me a few scenes until I realized that the movie is actually set in the 1970s. It still isn't the “real” '70s – the production design, which is spectacular, is surreal and expressive even during the non-fantasy scenes. Sheen never takes off his sunglasses – even in the tub. Schwartzman's wig would make band-members from Three Dog Night do a double-take. There's a couch in the shape of a giant hot dog.
This visual alacrity (Sheen has a pet toucan!) is, I feel, enough to win you over from the comic moments that fall a little short of their intended mark. Some scenes, however, really crackle, such as Sheen on a bender and slobbering an $800 can of caviar in the back of a taxi cab. Despite this and a few other fun set pieces, the most of “Swan”'s best moments are tender connections he shares with his small circle of supporters. In addition to Schwartzman is his sister (Patricia Arquette) and his business manager (Bill Murray), all of whom are struggling with their own flaring conflicts. Some of the zanier set pieces (Mary Elizabeth Winstead in some real Frederick's of Hollywood fetish-wear firing missiles) don't quite come together.
As far as the budget is concerned, well, hell, when did something being expensive have anything to do with something's true merit? (Other than sushi.) Much of “Swan'”s pleasures come from its handmade craftiness, but if some instances have a less-than-billion-dollar style, and we can't accept it because it has “known stars” (as opposed to, say, a Danish film with actors that are new to us) then this may say a lot about what we're ready to accept as “entertainment product.”
The end of the film explicitly evokes “8 1/2” (earlier moments do the same with “All That Jazz”) and while there's no way I'd put them on the same shelf there is an decadent panache to this tale of the wounded lover. As the anticipated follow-up to Roman Coppola's marvelous 2001 film “CQ,” this is something of a letdown, but as a breezy romp it could be far, far worse.