The Big Question of Charlie Sheen's New Film: What's That Guy's Problem?

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A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III offers a surprisingly insightful examination of a character who resembles a certain, real-life actor/train wreck.

charles swan 3 615 levin.jpg

Few celebrity meltdowns could possibly compare with that moment in 2011 when Charlie Sheen suddenly became a self-proclaimed "winning," truth-telling "warlock." Sheen, you'll recall, slammed the television show paying him millions of dollars, paraded his "goddess" girlfriends around in bizarre interviews and webcasts, and embarked on a series of crazed public appearances that culminated in a disastrous national tour.

Pre-warlock Sheen wasn't exactly a poster boy for good behavior, but audiences loved him as the irascible Charlie Harper in Two and a Half Men, not to mention such earlier-career hits as Wall Street and Platoon. This, however, was something different. As Dave Thier put it for The Atlantic in 2011, Sheen may have "lifted the veil too far off his own madness for the audience to ever look at him again." The subsequent success of Anger Management, his new FX sitcom, would appear to prove otherwise.

But a new cinematic crack at comprehending the Sheen id poses a different and far more interesting test of audience sympathy for this larger-than-life figure. The film A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, playing nationwide on demand and opening in limited release today, depicts a Sheen alter ego unlike any we've seen.

Charles Swan III (Sheen), a successful graphic designer sent reeling after a breakup, is tormented, sad, and vulnerable, a world away from the bad-boy womanizers of Two and a Half Men and Anger Management. He's more likely to sit at home and cry with his shoulders slumped than to embark on anything resembling a Violent Torpedo of Truth tour. Roman Coppola's film follows Swan on a path of morose self-destruction after the love of his life Ivana (Katheryn Winnick) leaves him.

"You're using 'Charlie Sheen' as a sort of euphemism for insanity, which is maybe not fair," Coppola cautioned the LA Weekly's Karina Longworth in an interview, but make no mistake: This movie is a full-scale dissection of the Sheen image, a direct subversion of the hard-partying, "winning," tough-guy philosophy. And lurking beneath the film's flights of fancy and stylized genre-busting exterior is an affecting human drama, the story of a broken man uncovering just how bad things have gotten before he can rebuild his spirit.

The film begins with Sheen (in the first acting job he took during his off-screen chaos) as Swan facing the camera and standing against a black void. He tells a doctor that he hasn't been sleeping much and that no one understands him, before the doctor opens up the contents of his mind: "70 percent sex, 20 percent your desire for power and money, a small section used for bodily functions and to manage your affairs." It's a withering diagnosis, done in a fourth wall-shattering context that establishes early on the movie's interest in real-life allusions.

From there, we witness a parade of nonlinear traumas: Ivana leaves Charles after she finds a drawer filled with photos of naked women; his car careens down a mountain and crashes into a swimming pool; a bad case of heartburn lands him in the hospital. Our hero is consumed by sadness, alone in his house, virtually friendless and altogether unable to function. Work is out of the question. He's blind to his sister's (Patricia Arquette) needs. And while Charles loves Ivana and wants her back, he can't bring himself to comprehend his mistakes. Darkness beckons.

Coppola highlights the onscreen ladies' man's fundamental character deficiency: his exceedingly simple worldview.

Coppola depicts Charles's journey to rock bottom with a swift, light hand. The movie is centered on the character's overactive imagination, his "rescue fantasies." We are transported into his subconscious as Ivana and his former girlfriends mourn him at his funeral, as Charles and his only pal Kirby (Jason Schwartzman) fend off scantily clad woman in Native American garb, and as Charles, Kirby, and Charles's manager Saul (Bill Murray) escape a vindictive militaristic female hit squad.

The fantasy sequences transition in tone from the jazzy rhythms of the mock funeral, which transforms into a musical-style dance scene, to a comic western and a broad, Cold War-era espionage thriller. At other times, Charles slays Nazis and performs in Portuguese. Above all, these pop culture-inflected journeys into the character's subconscious illustrate his inability to understand women, to regard their needs and desires as equal to his, rather than as the manifestations of fantasy objects.

In this context, rather than through the simplified prism of Sheen's sitcom image, Coppola highlights a fundamental character deficiency. The onscreen ladies' man, the fervent believer in male superiority, is undone by his exceedingly simple worldview. He's trapped in a universe of big-screen fantasies, seduced by superficial imagery and notions of good and evil, and utterly ill-equipped to process the raw, messy emotions of real life.

As Charles Swan III's meltdown reaches a crescendo of bad decisions, in drug-fueled outbursts of rage and sadness, we understand what brought him to that self-destructive place. Sheen plays Charles with a surprising degree of melancholy, a sense of subdued introspection. Filled with frustration and hiding behind sunglasses, wandering his dark house and asking an imaginary Ivana for forgiveness, he's a tragic figure, the fallen ladies' man. The road to recovery is long and hard.

One of the symptoms of an actor reaching a certain level of notoriety is that he or she can no longer disappear into a part. Lindsay Lohan will always play a version of Lindsay Lohan. Tom Cruise will always play a form of Tom Cruise. If you accept that Charlie Sheen is doomed to always play versions of himself, if you open your eyes to the fact that A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III is as much a commentary on its star's classic persona as it is the plight of its title character, you'll see that the film reveals a depth and weight to the Sheen archetype that we haven't experienced before.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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