The Caveman’s Valentine

The Caveman’s Valentine and last year’s American Psycho both take a gander (or pretend to) at American class craziness through the eyes of characters whose elevators don’t go all the way to the top, but otherwise the two movies are reverse images of each other. Where American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman was a wealthy white stockbroker whose psychotic fantasies caused him to butcher transients and prostitutes, the main character of The Caveman’s Valentine is a black homeless paranoid schizophrenic intent on bringing an omnipotent powermonger to justice.

Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson) wasn’t always on the bottom, though. He was born well-to-do, started a family young, and was a Julliard-trained musician with a promising career before his life got out of hand. Now he’s homeless, half-mad, and known on the street as “the Caveman” because he lives inside a small rocky enclosure under Manhattan’s Inwood Park. Rom has cut himself off from everyone connected with his former life except his daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), a NYPD police officer who’s increasingly frustrated by her father’s bizarre conspiracy theories. These theories revolve around the omni-corrupt Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, a sandwiching of historical personages into one imaginary figure that Rom has made his personal nemesis. As Rom sees him, the rich, power-mad, and ruthless Stuyvesant is responsible for all of the world’s evils. From a penthouse atop the Chrysler Building he controls the world’s population with invisible rays, keeping a special close eye on the one threat that still exists to his empire—the freethinking Caveman.

When Rom finds the frozen body of a young man outside his cave on Valentine’s Day, he’s sure that it’s Stuyvesant’s handiwork, left behind as a ghastly “valentine.” The cops don’t buy it, of course, and when they write off the transient’s death it seems like Stuyvesant has won another victory. But Rom learns that the murdered boy was once the model and abused lover of David Leppenraub (Colm Feore), a famous art photographer whose work has an S&M streak running through its grain. Convinced that Leppenraub is both the boy’s murderer and one of Stuyvesant’s henchman, Romulus leaves his cave and reenters society in order to effect one small act of justice and thereby deliver his own message to Stuyvesant. The only question is whether he can fend off the voices—and the fear underlying them—long enough to accomplish the feat.

George Dawes Green was allowed to adapt The Caveman’s Valentine from his 1994 novel, and that was probably a mistake. Green showed no great feeling for character even in his book, and his plotting and dialogue both had a making-it-up-as-it-goes-along quality that have found their way into the film version. The movie omits most of what little explanation the book offered for Rom’s condition, leaving us to think that the grandiose myths he’s built up around Stuyvesant somehow sprang from the stage-fright he used to feel before his piano recitals, but why a privileged composer’s artistic dread manifests itself as a left-leaning conspiracy theory is the movie’s biggest mystery. Director Kasi Lemmon (Eve’s Bayou) is more concerned with the art design of Rom’s craziness than its meaning: with disheartening regularity, we’re plunged into the imaginary vaulted chamber, filled with fantastic moth-like creatures and Alvin Ailey dancers, that represents the inner sanctum of Rom’s mind.

Nothing in The Caveman’s Valentine feels properly grounded or set up. The ease with which Rom befriends a bankruptcy lawyer, infiltrates Leppenraub’s farm and inner circle, and begins an affair with Leppenraub’s sister (Ann Magnuson), makes all of these events seem like mere plot conveniences. Time and again bland dialogue and sluggish timing undo potentially witty scenes, and the film’s various milieus—street junkies, high financiers, and avant-garde artists alike—feel guessed at. The long sequence at Leppenraub’s farm is especially synthetic, and contains what may be the most galling depiction of intellectual life since Five Easy Pieces. Leppenraub (whose controversial artwork and name would have made Robert Mapplethorpe consider a lawsuit) is reputed to engage in kinky sex, prattles on about “suffering,” has a dog named Lao-Tse, and is surrounded by the tony, phony sort of people that Spy Magazine used to fricassee.

Working under a mop of dreadlocks that look like long tarantula legs, Sam Jackson gives his most imaginative performance in years. He doesn’t rely on his unstable cobalt presence to earn his paycheck for a change, and if The Caveman’s Valentine had any heft at all, Romulus Ledbetter could have been his career-defining role. Ann Magnuson gives the movie a much-needed shot of humanity despite having her character’s inner life stripped away in its transition to the screen, and Anthony Michael Hall (as the bankruptcy lawyer) continues to show a good-humored versatility that seemed unlikely to emerge in his teen years. Performers like these deserve better than the material they’ve gotten.

Using a man who’s trapped inside his own reality as the detective in a murder mystery is a stroke of sadistic genius: the natural way we root for the handicapped, and pray that their disability won’t betray them at the worst possible second, should be unbearable in that scenario. But Rom’s “brain typhoons” never come into play in any vital way; the moment never comes when his craziness completely disables him in his sleuthing. (Even better, it could be used to give him some brilliant leg-up that’s unavailable to the sane, but in The Caveman’s Valentine something like the precise opposite happens.) When his spells do come, they’re of the type that make him have to go outside and walk them off, not the type that cause people to call the police.

If the filmmakers are unfamiliar with mental illness, they’re even less so with quality avant-garde music. Rom sits down to play his compositions twice in the film, and both times you come away wondering who’s crazier: Romulus or his instructors at Julliard. Rom’s thunderous piano rolls sound like a head-on collision between John Tesh and Ferrante & Teischer. Not since The Piano has ostensibly brilliant music been so awful.

– Tom Block

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