Like so many filmmakers of his generation, writer-director Roman Coppola makes movies that are simply a valentine to other movies. The results, however, tend to be more like installations, where we walk in, look around, admire his ability to recreate specific moments of tone and style, and then leave without having experienced anything close to drama or comedy or human feeling.
Two films in, he’s established himself as a master of simulacra, but his movies are all look and no touch. His 2001 debut feature, “CQ,” paid homage to slick 1960s Euro-flash epics like “Barbarella” and “Danger: Diabolik,” and now Coppola (who’s currently up for an Oscar for co-writing “Moonrise Kingdom”) returns with “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III,” a paean to the 1970s (as filtered through that decade’s revival of the aesthetics of the ’30s and ’40s) in general, and the films of Bob Fosse in particular.
Charlie Sheen — believe it or not, he’s actually bothering to give a performance — stars as Charles Swan, a successful art director having something of a midlife crisis. Unable to come up with a concept for an album cover for his best pal, Kirby Star (Jason Schwartzman), Charles sinks into a mire of self-pity following the departure of his latest girlfriend, Ivana (Katheryn Winnick).
Swan’s checkered past with his relationships prompts some “All That Jazz”–inspired moments where former loves turn up in his fantasies to both coo over and chastise him, and even though Kirby is established as a singer, we get a scene of him doing stand-up comedy so that Coppola can recreate a moment from “Lenny.” That he left “Cabaret” and “Sweet Charity” alone should be seen, perhaps, as directorial restraint.
The other key relationships in Charlie’s life are with his sister Izzy (Patricia Arquette, rocking a series of lady-of-the-canyon outfits) and her young sons, and with his business manager Saul (Bill Murray), who’s having romantic problems of his own.
It’s not surprising that there isn’t a whole lot that actually happens here, story-wise, since Coppola is clearly more interested in Charles’ vintage, pre-WWII sedan (festooned with Nixon-era retro graphics of bacon and eggs on the doors) and on the sideburns and leisure suits and what the world of advertising looked like in the pre-computer analog age.
(The real stars of the film, it bears noting, are art director Almitra Corey, production designer Elliott Hostetter, costume designer April Napier and set decorator Elizabeth Keenan, with composers Liam Hayes and Roger Neill also contributing to the ’70s vibe with their cheery tunes.)
Where “Charles Swan” really drops the ball is in providing the lead character with a completely unearned redemption — things are falling apart for him, and then they aren’t, with only one conversation with Ivana that’s supposed to have magically fixed everything.
This isn’t a despicable film or a lazy one; it’s just a doodle, a glorified home movie by a filmmaker who no doubt has one hell of a Rolodex and a few favors to call in. (Coppola’s father, it should be noted, directed “Apocalypse Now,” which starred Sheen’s father. That film’s Colleen Camp pops in for a cameo just to close the loop.)
If you’re just coming in for the art direction, “Charles Swan” won’t disappoint. But as gamely charming as the film often is, its look is ultimately all it has to offer.