A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III

The fascinating thing about “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” — and it is almost literally the only fascinating thing about this woeful mistake of a movie — is how much genuine talent it squanders.

The writer-director is Roman Coppola, son of Francis Ford Coppola and the co-writer of Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” The younger Coppola’s only previous directorial effort, “CQ” (2001), was a misfire, but it hinted at untapped potential for him as a filmmaker. Bill Murray plays a supporting role in the new film, as do the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Patricia Arquette, and Aubrey Plaza (of TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) — all enviable performers.

And in the lead? Charlie Sheen, the once likable and promising star who in recent years has become a parody of himself. He’s now the sort of actor you cast because you WANT people to be reminded of his off-screen notoriety. He’s a gimmick. How completely has he erased the line between his real-life persona and his fictional roles? Since 2000, almost every character he has played on TV or in film has been named Charlie — reinforcing the implication that he’s really just playing himself.

That’s clearly what Coppola had in mind here, perhaps because he suspected his aimlessly twee screenplay wouldn’t stand on its own. The title character is a carousing, reckless, self-obsessed womanizer who is dumped by his girlfriend in the film’s opening moments after she finds a picture of herself in the drawer where he keeps dirty photos of his previous lovers. Charles Swan III is a graphic artist, and a talented one, but undisciplined, erratic, temperamental, and unreliable. (Sound familiar?)

Most of the film takes place during a brief hospital stay, with Charles waiting impatiently for test results that will tell him if he’s living or dying. He’s not sure which he’d prefer. While waiting, he confers with his best friend, a comedian named Kirby Star (Schwartzman); with his novelist sister (Arquette); and with his accountant, Saul (Murray), disappointing or exasperating all of them in one way or another.

But mostly, he withdraws. Clad in Hunter S. Thompson sunglasses and looking much the worse for wear, the bedraggled Mr. Swan lives primarily inside his own head, fueled by constant fantasies about death or heroically rescuing people. Coppola, showing some of the creativity I know is lurking inside him somewhere, takes us bobbing and weaving through Charles’ fantasies, as well as through his memories (which themselves contain fantasies, giving us multiple layers of surreality). The experience ought to be fun, and at first there is some amusement in fanciful images like Charles dancing elegantly in a cemetery with his ex-lovers. But the what-the-heck-was-that? novelty wears off with astonishing speed once it sinks in that none of this is going anywhere.

The problem? Charles Swan III is awful. There are likable cads — the sort of rakish naughty boys we tsk-tsk at while enjoying their exploits — and there are irredeemable jerks. Charles is the second kind. Never mind why any of the other characters put up with him: why are WE putting up with him? His boorishness is seldom funny. There is no underlying charm the way there might have been if someone like, say, Jon Hamm had played the role. But even a charismatic rascal — even Cary Grant at his finest — probably couldn’t have done anything with the film’s meandering, pointlessly arch screenplay.

What I would appreciate is a glimpse inside the mind of Roman Coppola. Whom did he think this would appeal to, apart from the people who helped him make it? What does he perceive its “message” or “point” or “theme” to be? What magic did he use to make an 86-minute movie feel like 186 minutes? And why in heaven’s name did he think casting Charlie Sheen as a thinly veiled version of himself would be a selling point? These are the mysteries of our time.

D- (1 hr., 26 min.; R, some nudity and harsh profanity.)

Originally published at About.com.