And in the lead? Charlie Sheen, the once likable and promising star who in recent years has become a parody of himself. He's now the sort of actor you cast because you WANT people to be reminded of his off-screen notoriety. He's a gimmick. How completely has he erased the line between his real-life persona and his fictional roles? Since 2000, almost every character he has played on TV or in film has been named Charlie -- reinforcing the implication that he's really just playing himself.
That's clearly what Coppola had in mind here, perhaps because he suspected his aimlessly twee screenplay wouldn't stand on its own. The title character is a carousing, reckless, self-obsessed womanizer who is dumped by his girlfriend in the film's opening moments after she finds a picture of herself in the drawer where he keeps dirty photos of his previous lovers. Charles Swan III is a graphic artist, and a talented one, but undisciplined, erratic, temperamental, and unreliable. (Sound familiar?)
But mostly, he withdraws. Clad in Hunter S. Thompson sunglasses and looking much the worse for wear, the bedraggled Mr. Swan lives primarily inside his own head, fueled by constant fantasies about death or heroically rescuing people. Coppola, showing some of the creativity I know is lurking inside him somewhere, takes us bobbing and weaving through Charles' fantasies, as well as through his memories (which themselves contain fantasies, giving us multiple layers of surreality). The experience ought to be fun, and at first there is some amusement in fanciful images like Charles dancing elegantly in a cemetery with his ex-lovers. But the what-the-heck-was-that? novelty wears off with astonishing speed once it sinks in that none of this is going anywhere.
The problem? Charles Swan III is awful. There are likable cads -- the sort of rakish naughty boys we tsk-tsk at while enjoying their exploits -- and there are irredeemable jerks. Charles is the second kind. Never mind why any of the other characters put up with him: why are WE putting up with him? His boorishness is seldom funny. There is no underlying charm the way there might have been if someone like, say, Jon Hamm had played the role. But even a charismatic rascal -- even Cary Grant at his finest -- probably couldn't have done anything with the film's meandering, pointlessly arch screenplay.