A Glimpse Inside the Mind

Some filmmakers thrive on absurd, surreal settings and plotlines. Others work within the more down-to-earth realm of realism, zooming in on the tiny details of characters’ lives that make them human.  Roman Coppola has the rare distinction of being both of these filmmakers.  From the beginning of A Glimpse Inside the Mind, he primes us for the unrealistic.  The first scene is a cartoonish psychoanalysis of Charles’ brain, where 60s style photographs of women in bikinis, alcoholic beverages, and palm trees unfold out of his head, like in a children’s pop-up book, while he stands in a spotlight in an abstract, black space, smoking a cigarette.  Following this we’re suddenly plunged into a dark room were Charles’ ex-girlfriend screams at him from across the room, a break-up scene that feels, perhaps, too real.

The way this movie jumps unexpectedly back and forth between fantasy and reality seems like an extension of Charles’ own insanity.  The unannounced transitions are unsettling, like we’re standing on shifting ground (although as the movie goes on, it becomes easier to pick out when you’re in a real scene as opposed to a fantasy).  At the same time, in both Charles’ reality and fantasy, the humorous, deprecating voice of Roman Coppola always seems to be present, getting a kick out of his character’s antics.  In a scene where Charles imagines his own funeral, filled with his hot, weeping ex-girlfriends, you can almost hear Roman Coppola cracking up and nudging Charlie, “come on man, what next?  Then you magically rise out of the coffin and do the cha-cha with your girlfriends?” …Actually, yes.  After Charlie levitates out of the ground there is an elaborate, sexy dance break where Charles seduces each of his exes (except for Ivana, who is the only one he really wants to win over anyways). Coppola uses glitzy cinematic conventions and locales like a Wild-western frontier to, arguably, their best effect: parody.

Indeed, parody seems to be the safest realm for Coppola to explore Charles’ bad break-up, in addition to some of his more concerning character flaws.  Indeed, what does it say about him that in every fantasy, no matter whether the setting is his own funeral or the wild west, everyone else (besides his sidekick and best friend, played by Jason Schwartzman) is one of his ex-girlfriends?

Even in real life sequences, Coppola’s characterization of Charles often verges on caricature.  Consider for instance the scene where a seething Charles speeds away furiously in his car (which, it should be noted, has a bacon and eggs paint job on the side), intermittently flashing his bare legs from underneath a maroon silk kimono.  He is taking a trash bag filled with his ex-girlfriend’s shoes to a mountainside, where he intends to— yep, you guessed it— hurl it off the edge.  Sure he’s aggressive, sure, he’s delusional (after all, it is abundantly clear even from the first scene that he’s the one who messed up), and may very well need a therapist. But when he gets to the mountain’s edge, and tries to hurl the shoes off into the wide-open space, the bag gets caught in the tree directly in front of him.  He can’t even be dramatic right.

Yet somehow, no matter how pathetic Coppola makes Charles seem, we’re never made to feel like we’re laughing at him— always with him.  The over-the-top schtick of both Charles’ fantasies and his real-life screw-ups does seem to suggest that no one, least of all Coppola, is taking himself too seriously. The fact that Charles Swan is played by Charlie Sheen helps this irreverent dynamic.  In light of his own recent series of highly publicized, somewhat embarrassing scandals, Sheen seems to use the caricature of Charles Swan III to, in some way, make fun of himself.

Furthermore, Coppola goes beyond creating a one-dimensional caricature of a rogue-celebrity, by giving him a guilty conscience.  Even in Charles’ own deluded fantasies, Ivana always seems to be there amongst the rest of his exes deflating him.  After his extravagant performance at his own funeral, she’s nonplussed— ‘He was only doing it to impress me.’  Even when he is giving his thank you speech after winning the Best Bullshit Award, Ivana grumbles under her breath, ‘should have gotten an award for being an asshole.‘  In fact, Charles’ fantasies never really seem to go well for him.  In the Wild West he is shot in the heart with an arrow by a naked, Indian Ivana.  In another, secret-agent Ivana almost blows him up with a missile. In fact, there are times within the fantasies where Coppola makes Ivana seem like the protagonist, causing us to ask, wait a minute— aren’t these supposed to be Charles’ fantasies?

The self-reflectiveness of the fantasies carries over into Charles’ real world, in the form of abrupt epiphanies.  His desperation when he confesses to his kid-nephew what a mess he is, seems heartfelt and, in fact, heartbreaking.  This is as much a tribute to Sheen’s acting as it is to Coppola’s writing.  Sheen shows us a man who hides the bags under his eyes with a pair of sunglasses, a man who, underneath the swagger is fundamentally broken.  These glimpses (yes, I said it) into Charles’ humanity make it so that we can’t just laugh at him from a distance. We’re also made to feel very close to his suffering.

The style of filming also makes us feel close to Charles Swan III.  In the world of Charles’ reality, especially when he is remembering being with Ivana, Coppola uses shaky, handheld close shots that give certain scenes an almost documentary-like feeling.  The realness of these moments of intimacy is all the more tangible because they are in relief with Charles’ surreal world of fantasy.  And in fact, towards the end, the realism takes over the fantasies.  Charles’ last fantasy is of he and Ivana singing a Bossa-nova duet.  The camera brings out the human details of the scene— the way their faces react to each other, the way Kathryn Winnick as Ivana dances un-self-consciously, almost like she’s alone in her living room.  It’s as if, by the end of the movie, not just us, but Charles can see her humanity too.  He can see the humanity in their relationship.

This might be a light-hearted comedy with (spoilers) a happy ending, but the deep empathy and sensitivity with which Coppola and Sheen portray the character of Charles Swan III makes you want a happy ending. As the movie shows us, life is already filled with so much pain.  Let Charles have the fantasy.