Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Charlie Sheen’s Swan Dive

Roman Ford Coppola, son of Francis, has his father’s eye for gorgeous screen images and superb camerawork – even when working with props and locations that by themselves are simple and mundane. He doesn’t have Francis’ knack for giving stories an epic feel – not just big-themed films like Apocalypse Now (in which you might expect it) but also lightweight pics such as Peggy Sue Got Married. Nor does he have sister Sofia’s talent for being sentimental without being maudlin, e.g. Somewhere (2010). What he does, more than either, is convey an existential sense of life’s absurdity. His scripts are infused with sardonic humor and quirky irony that aren’t to everyone’s taste. Roman has had critical successes, especially when co-writing with Wes Anderson, e.g. The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom, but it doesn’t surprise me when his attitude turns off viewers.

Nevertheless, the negative response to A Glimpse inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, which Roman both wrote and directed, was extreme. On Rotten Tomatoes it receives an abysmal 16% score despite a solid cast: Charlie Sheen, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette, Aubrey Plaza, et al. Could it really be as bad as all that? I had to see for myself. The short answer is no, it’s not that bad. In fact, it’s not bad at all. However, I can see why most viewers, including professional critics, don’t like it – really don’t like it. It’s that attitude again, plus the whole thrust of the plot, which is not about love succeeding, but about love failing. Audiences prefer the success stories. They sometimes respond to the other kind, but not when delivered with breezy, offbeat, unsentimental, and sometimes snarky humor. In a way, this is the Anti Silver Linings Playbook. Roman tells us that maybe there is no shot at a silver lining. Folks in our time increasingly may believe this about real life (see April blog Every Silver Lining Has a Dark Cloud), but they don’t want to see it on screen.

The movie is set in the 1970s. I don’t know why, though it is the decade when romantic expectations shifted. Charlie Sheen plays Charles Swan, a successful commercial artist who designs book and album covers. He is also a middle-age bachelor who hasn’t grown up. His stunning girlfriend Ivana, played by Katheryn Winnick, dumps him over an issue that isn’t very important in itself, but which is a “last straw.” In fact, she has lots of good reasons to leave the wandering-eyed Charlie, and there also is reason to believe Ivana has strayed. After she leaves, Charlie obsesses on her in a humanly contradictory fashion: he loves her, he hates her, he is glad to be free of her, and he desperately wants her back. He has a wild artist’s imagination, and we see his fantasies; they include song-and-dance numbers and a literal battle of the sexes with a cowboys-and-Indians motif. (This daydream device is not original – it was used to good effect in The Seven Year Itch [1955], for example – but Coppola does a good job with it.) Charles suffers what he thinks is a heart attack (an unsubtle metaphor) but isn’t. He then goes on a crazy drunken spree involving friends, work, and family, ending in an encounter with Ivana that is revealing but, at bottom, depressing. All the while, we can’t help being aware of parallels to these events in Charlie Sheen’s own life.

I won’t recommend this film since there evidently is an 84% chance the viewer won’t like it. I rather did, though. The film was not intended to be deep. Nevertheless, it really does reflect our time, especially in romantic matters. That is to say, it is airy, glitzy, self-indulgent, shallow, unpleasant, and rudely funny, but also, if you look too close, tragic. Perhaps the message is, don’t look too close. 

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