`Caveman' content to stay in the dark

Movie review

March 09, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

"The Caveman's Valentine" is about a homeless man who cracks a murder case - not just any homeless man, and not just any murder case. Romulus Ledbetter, played by Samuel L. Jackson, elects to live in a cave in New York City's Inwood Park. The response he evokes isn't, "Oh, my God, that man is me!" - which is what you would expect from a heartfelt exploration of homelessness - but "Oh, my God, that man is greater than I could ever be!"

Romulus is a Juilliard-trained pianist who experienced a crack-up a la "Shine" that left him paranoid and possessed of scattered, blazing insights. When he discovers a corpse planted up a tree in front of his cave one frigid Valentine's Day - then learns that the dead man was a model for an art-world big shot - it fits in with his general view of the world. He thinks that "reality" is merely an imaginative projection of an evil mastermind named Stuyvesant. To Romulus, it makes sense that an avant-garde photographer of note, David Leppenraub (Colm Feore), would torture and kill a protege and subject. When the police don't move quickly enough, Romulus decides to turn detective and nail Leppenraub himself.

From the start, this movie sets the bar high - then, unfortunately, runs smack into it. Consider how the movie depicts Romulus' "brain typhoons," peopled with "Moth-Seraphs." These creatures look like body-builders with Christmas-choir wings, and they mass in some Coney Island concert hall of the mind - half-Gothic, half-Moorish. Is this a feverish psychological epiphany or a nightmare club trip?

The Moth-Seraphs do nothing to illuminate Romulus' past life as a pianist, or the roots of his mental turmoil. All they do is provide an odd, dissonant echo of the supposed killer Leppenraub's photos of ravaged angels. "The Caveman's Valentine" is a psychological thriller without psychological resonance. Romulus' cop daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis) shows up to act abashed or express concern; his estranged wife, Sheila (Tamara Tunie), appears as a beautiful mocker during his brain typhoons. They're essentially satellites in a Romulus-centric universe.

The list of murder suspects is so limited and their motivations so easy to unravel, that the film's third act is like the 50-50 option in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" You know the correct solution to the mystery is the slightly less obvious choice. Director Kasi Lemmons and screenwriter George Dawes Green (who adapted his own novel) muster up some eerie tension when Romulus' visions intersect with the dynamics of the crime - especially when he comes face to face with faceless men.

But the movie might have been stronger if its creators had forced us to look at Romulus more objectively. What suspense there is comes less from the question of whodunit than from whether Romulus can hold his craziness in check. The more distanced experience of reading the book preserves and enhances that tension.

As a novelist, Green usually explains too much, especially about Stuyvesant - in Romulus' mind, an early 20th-century quack who was poisonously jealous of a Harlem healer (one of Romulus' own ancestors). But Green's book wisely leaves the visual fabric of Romulus' fantasies open and suggestive. When Lemmons and Green literalize Romulus' fever dreams on screen with a souped-up first-person point of view, all they do is take us on a rickety psychic roller coaster.

Lemmons has won plaudits for her fancy-pants expressionism both in this film and her first one, the family drama "Eve's Bayou" (which also starred Jackson). I think Lemmons is a promising director of actors; I cringe when she obscures their work with quick cutting and dancing lights.

"The Caveman's Valentine," with its lame brain-twister of a plot, inevitably hems the actors in. But Jackson conjures an alternately tender and spiky rapport with Ann Magnuson as the presumed killer's artist-sister. She's a smart, humorous woman - the kind whose sensuality is all tied up with curiosity. And Jackson swaps shrewd ironies with Anthony Michael Hall as a bankruptcy lawyer who both helps Romulus and verges on making him a trophy charity case.

Of course, Jackson's deep-eyed magnetism is enough by itself to keep a movie going. But in "The Caveman's Valentine" I kept waiting for revelatory moments to clear away the mystic-analytic mumbo-jumbo. Forget the action showdown when Romulus corners the killer. The most engaging moments come when Romulus takes a shower and looks at himself unclothed in a mirror for the first time in years. He prolongs his gaze, reacquainting himself with his body - and realizing he still has a butt.

`The Caveman's Valentine'

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Colm Feore, Ann Magnuson

Directed by Kasi Lemmons

Released by Universal Focus

Running time 105 minutes

Rated R (adult language, sexuality, violence)

Sun score * * 1/2

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