The Straight was pretty unkind to Charlie Sheen when he came through Vancouver on his Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not an Option tour back in 2011. And the Straight would like to apologize for calling him a “barely articulate blockhead”. Because Charlie Sheen is fantastic in the movie A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.
“I knew that he’s a great actor,” says writer-director Roman Coppola, calling from his home in San Francisco, “and when you’re a talented actor it just doesn’t go away.”
No, it doesn’t. And trouble, mercifully, is often temporary. When Coppola first approached him with the part, Sheen hadn’t quite gone on his tiger-blood, tabloid-cover binge yet. But his old friend—the two first met when their fathers worked together on Apocalypse Now—waited for the ensuing storm to pass.
“There was a process of about a year-and-a-half where I was trying to pin him down,” Coppola continues. “And I kept sticking with it, saying, ‘Hey, we gotta do this thing together!’ And to be very honest, financiers were not excited about Charlie Sheen. The movie did not carry insurance, it did not carry a completion bond, because people were uncomfortable with his profile. But I knew him, and when he said, ‘I’ll do this movie,’ that’s all I needed to hear. And so he learned his lines, he was on time every day, he learned Spanish, he learned to dance, he just totally went for it.”
Sheen really does speak Spanish and he dances (and sings—in Portuguese) very ably in the freewheeling and extremely stylish comedy-drama (opening Monday [February 18]), about a superstar graphic designer dealing not so ably with heartbreak in mid-‘70s Hollywood. But he’s at his very best in a climactic scene in which a confusion of emotions come tumbling out while he blubbers tenderly to his ex. You’re tempted to wonder what he’s channelling in such an honest performance.
Equally, it might simply be the case that Charlie Sheen was inspired by the material. His first reaction to Coppola’s pitch is revealing. “Cool, sounds like All That Jazz,” he said, which happened to be precisely the film his director was thinking about when he conceived the project.
“I was, like, ‘We’re in thick,’” Coppola recalls. “I love that movie. It’s set in the world of show biz, it has that pizzazz that I wanted to have my movie reflect, and I feel that—not to rag on other movies—but a lot of indie movies are kind of dour and sourpuss and gritty, and I wanted to make something that had a sort of sparkle. That was on my mind.”
Charles Swan sparkles, all right, with its rococo period attended to in fetishistic detail, and its story told in an episodic structure that allows for some candy-coloured fantasy sequences—including a casually hilarious bit in which the louche pussyhound Swan receives an award from the “Academy of Sexy Women” for best line in bullshit (the director says it was inspired by a photo of Jack Nicholson receiving his best actor Oscar in 1976, “and he’s wearing the shades, and he just looks so cool...”).
Sheen’s costars are obviously enjoying themselves, too. Reuniting after Moonrise Kingdom (which Coppola cowrote), Bill Murray appears as Swan’s accountant, also in the midst of a relationship crisis, and Jason Schwartzman plays his best friend, a comedian who recalls a cross between Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce (from Bob Fosse’s biopic, Lenny, natch) and Kinky Friedman. Everybody seems to be grooving on the film’s overamped style, which Coppola traces back to a childhood obsession that’ll click with anyone who grew up in the hair pie and cocktail ’70s.
“Some of the imagery,” he says, “like the western sequence and especially the sexy Indians, the Secret Society of Ballbusters, that’s all stuff that could have come from a Playboy magazine cartoon, so I cop to that. It’s definitely a point of reference. Being 10 years old at that time, you get your hands on a Playboy, you know—it’s a very rich world that’s portrayed in those pages.”
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III opens at the Rio Theatre on Monday (February 18). A Skype Q&A with writer-director Roman Coppola follows the 9:30 p.m. screening on Wednesday.