Is A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III a good movie? Geez, what a question. Of course it is: It’s awesome, and any chump who says it’s bad probably just didn’t like it -- which is not the same thing. It’s fearlessly, joyously bonkers and funny; it’s art directed to lush, delicious period perfection; it’s the most tremendous performance from Charlie Sheen possibly ever. But it’s also an art movie. More than that, it’s a movie about art. Pop art, to be exact, a movement that provokes polarizing debate to this very day about whether there’s any substance underneath all that style. Do you see where this is going?
Usually, if you walk out of a movie saying, “Well, it certainly looked good, but was there any meaning there?” it’s a sign of failure -- because emotional depth is often one of the areas films are graded on. But what if the movie is supposed to lack emotional depth because the protagonist does?
The protagonist here -- the titular Charles Swan III (Sheen) -- is an artist living in 1970s L.A. He specializes in that post-Yellow Submarine, candy-colored variety of elaborate, airbrushed pop art made famous by Alan Aldridge and Charlie White III (presumably, the inspiration for the character’s name), the kind that explodes with intricate, referential pop imagery that was retro even at the time, sending up ’50’s nostalgia like hamburgers, American flags, and bombshell women to pointed excess. He wears The Kid Stays in the Picture-style tinted aviators all the time, and drives a vintage teal-green 1937 Cadillac Fleetwood with giant bacon-and-eggs decals on the sides. His best friend is a standup comic with an amazing Art Garfunkel Jew-fro named Kirby Star (Jason Schwartzman), and his girlfriend, until recently, was a pretty blonde actress named Ivana (Katheryn Winnick), who walked out on him because he’s basically an a-hole. The split leads to a car accident that lands Charles in the hospital, where he’s visited by his no-time-for-your-BS sister Izzy (Patricia Arquette) and his hard-luck business manager Saul (Bill Murray).
But what the film’s really about is the wild, ongoing free-for-all of Charles’ allusion-heavy imagination (or that of writer/director Roman Coppola, depending on how you want to look at it). Scenes relentlessly dive headfirst into a variety of All That Jazz-esque fantastical cutaways, like bossa nova songs performed in their entirety and in the original Portuguese, the leads attired in cowboy outfits as they are assailed by tongue-in-cheek hot girls dressed in Playboy-pictorial-style Indian costumes, and a silly action sequence in which the two friends flee a firebomb attack from a covert squadron of sexy chicks known as the Secret Society of Ball Busters -- the SSBB.
That last one is actually a really perfect example to illustrate how many unapologetic layers of postmodernism are going on here. The guys are shown running from the firepower of the SSBB after Kirby describes this idea in his standup act. The scene in which we see Kirby performing this bit is a reference to The Stand-Up, the movie-within-the-movie that the main character is attempting to edit from his hospital bed in All That Jazz. But even in All That Jazz, The Stand-Up is just a placeholder for the real-life movie Lenny, a picture that All That Jazz director Bob Fosse was stuck trying to finish while he himself was laid up in the hospital with health problems. And Lenny is a biopic about a real person, Lenny Bruce.
The snake is eating its own tail. But relax, Roman Coppola isn’t trying to become Charlie Kaufman. Clearly, Coppola loves the movies and aesthetics of the ’70s (and if you do too, watch it just for that), but he’s mostly just having fun as he points out how hollow all that meta-meaning really is. By the time the film reaches its climax, it’s absolutely clear that there’s a reason why we feel a strange sense of distance from even the heavyweight performances by Arquette and Murray and especially Sheen himself (all of which are awesome, by the way). We are seeing things through Charles’ eyes.
It’s always supposed to seem a little bit shallow -- Charles is a little bit shallow. Or maybe a lot. He feels real emotions and some of them are complex and big, but none of them are what you’d call examined. Likewise, even though we feel the affection Charles has for Izzy, Kirby, and Saul, he’s too immature and perhaps narcissistic to see other people in three dimensions, and so neither do we. Indeed, Charles is a graphic artist whose entire internal world is a very shiny brand of 2D, so that should tell you something. There’s another freebie directing us to this idea in a scene in which Charles is lying on a couch in his office (one that is, incidentally, shaped like a hot dog) and a life-size cardboard cutout of Kirby stands quite prominently behind him, clueing us in yet again to how Charles sees people.
Any more signposts than that would be too obvious, but don’t be surprised if most people still dismiss the movie as shallow -- as if it weren’t trying to be. You don’t have to like that about the film, or even have to like it at all. But being so shortsighted as to grade a picture based on taste is a far less frequent offense among the target audience of hardcore cinephiles -- viewers who might be happy to appreciate such a fascinating and entertaining exercise clothed in a delightful layer of complete craziness. If this describes you, Godspeed with A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III; you won’t regret checking it out. leave a comment --Cammila Collar