Charlie Sheen starring in an ambitious indie might be the Access Hollywood selling point, but the Coppola brand brings its own cachet. In its story of a well-fed Hollywood man suffering postbreakup midlife malaise, Charles Swan — Coppola's second film as writer and director — is a companion piece to sister Sophia's 2010 Somewhere, starring Stephen Dorff, who cameos here. It has been more than a decade since 2001's CQ, Coppola's first feature, a backstage divertissement set in '68 Paris that made sparks colliding space-age bachelor pad and cinema vérité aesthetics. More recently, he cowrote, with Wes Anderson, the screenplay of Moonrise Kingdom, a film dedicated to the cultural fetish objects of a few years earlier in the '60s.
Charles Swan III is also a film made up of period bric-a-brac — though the year is never precisely identified, the LP jackets, clothes, décor, and altogether exhaustive art-department work indicate the late '70s. And as Charles' coarsened mind is a "Sex Sells" collage, Coppola's film fantasy is a decoupage of his own cinematic influences. As Charles imagines his own funeral attended by crestfallen former lovers, Coppola cites the opening of Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women. The erotic self-examination is all Fellini's 8 1/2 by way of Bob Fosse's 1979 All That Jazz, while Charles' best friend, a standup comic named Kirby Star, is photographed to recall Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce in Fosse's biopic Lenny. (Playing Star, Jason Schwartzman has assumed Elliott Gould's Jewfro and beard, if none of his easy charm.) Bill Murray plays Swan's woebegone business manager and appears in another of Charles' daydreams wearing John Wayne's red tunic and suspenders from The Searchers — raised on Westerns and pulps, Charles is susceptible to imagining himself the hero of saves-the-day rescues.
Though only the female side of Charles' family appears in the film, the "III" on his name carries the weight of legacy. Coppola and Sheen are both 47, both born to movie families, and go back together as far as Apocalypse Now. Although elements of Swan's character come from designer Charles Swan III, who worked on Coppola père's City Magazine, the film knowingly piggybacks on publicity surrounding Sheen's libertinage. He's wearing a coke hangover look here, including ubiquitous La Dolce Vita aviator shades that come off for only one scene, in which he displays a heartbreak that is surprisingly affecting.
I say "surprisingly" because performance can do only so much to alleviate Charles Swan III's inconsequentiality. This has much to do with the way Coppola, feigning full disclosure, gingerly handles the depiction of hetero male fantasy life. Addressing the mingled worshipful/sordid tone of men's perceptions of women, Louis C.K. has said, "We think you're angels... and we want to drown you in our cum." Although this certainly has its cinematic possibilities, more often we wind up with froufrou absurdities like Kevin Spacey dreaming of Mena Suvari naked in a bathtub of rose petals in American Beauty. If there is a third way, Charles Swan III hasn't found it. Coppola manages one playful and sexy aside in which Charles imagines that his X-Ray Specs, the kind you order with a coupon from a comic book, actually make denim disappear, but other than that, he offers only fantasy scenes, neither amusing nor titillating, drawn from those same comic books in which dreaded, desired ladies are dressed up as squaws on the warpath or as agents of the SSBB (Secret Society of Ball-Busters).
The film's "real-life" women don't come across much more lucidly than the action figures in Charles' fantasies. As the ex who's caused Charles' heartburn, Katheryn Winnick scarcely registers, her characterization limited to the trivializing tidbit that she used to hold funerals for her old toothbrushes as a little girl. Perhaps Charles Swan III's superficiality is meant to reflect that of a world in which we mourn commercial goods, or the perspective of a subject whose mind airbrushes everything into a "layout" — but with neither the moral bite of satire nor a voluptuary surrender that really basks in shallowness, it's a vague, unsatisfying work.
If audiences have sympathized with Fellini, Fosse, and Truffaut's chronically horny onscreen avatars, it's because, whatever trouble they caused women, these cads and their creators seemed at least fascinated with or awed by the opposite sex, responsive to all the feminine varietals. In Charles Swan III, the girls with the honeyed curls have little to do but match the scene-to-scene motifs, like rented furniture. And where Moonrise Kingdom invested nostalgia objects with the weight of its character's longing, they're only props here.
Coppola has made an assemblage, an erotic autobiography in images not unlike the geysers from Charles' head that begin his film, but he's failed to set up provocative tensions or suggest new meanings. That this eruption ends with a photo shoot playing on the phrase "Everything but the kitchen sink" is evidently meant as a self-aware joke, but like the movie it caps, it's a clunker.