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Jackson Puts the Heart in 'Valentine'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2001


    'The Caveman's Valentine' Stroking the keys, looking for clues: Samuel L. Jackson attempts to solve a mystery in "The Caveman's Valentine."
(Franchise Pictures-Universal Focus)
"The Caveman's Valentine" (boy, there's a title that just cries out for explanation, doesn't it?) is in many ways just another formulaic whodunit. It's kind of like the old "Columbo" mysteries, where a seeming bumbler gets to the root of a crime despite – or perhaps because of – his cluelessness. Only, in this case, imagine that the titular hero is not a cigar-chomping, Italian American police lieutenant in a rumpled trench coat but a dreadlocked black man and Juilliard-trained concert pianist dressed in urine-soaked rags and living in a cave somewhere "on the edge of Manhattan" (according to the movie's press kit). Always wondered who lived in those caves on the edge of Manhattan, didn't you?

Oh, and have I mentioned that he's paranoid schizophrenic too?

Thanks to a compelling performance by Samuel L. Jackson as the aforementioned hero and to stylish direction by Kasi ("Eve's Bayou") Lemmons, "Valentine" rises above its humble circumstances. And its humble circumstances, based on George Dawes Green's Edgar Award-winning novel, are these: One snowy morning on or around St. Valentine's Day, a frozen body is discovered in a tree. A tree that just happens to be growing outside the cave door of one Romulus Ledbetter (a k a "Caveman" to the locals, thanks to his unorthodox choice of domicile), an unstable though formerly brilliant musician. The cops may be ready to write off the homeless junkie victim as another regrettable death by exposure but not our man Rom.

See, Rom believes there's something more sinister going on, something involving his nemesis, a product of his fevered imagination named "Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant" who watches all from his lair high atop the Chrysler Building while manipulating the world with "y-rays" and "z-rays." I did mention the schizophrenia part, didn't I?

Apparently, he's not completely round the bend, though. During one of the rare moments of lucidity between what he calls his "brain typhoons," Rom comes to suspect someone a little less – how shall I put this? – figmental. Someone by the name of David Leppenraub (Colm Feore), a snotty fine-art photographer who once employed the victim as model and around whom vague accusations of abuse and torture are starting to swirl. But when Rom passes this tip on to his policewoman daughter, Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), she takes it with a very healthy dose of salt. Can you blame her? Her dad listens to the news on a blank TV screen and talks to people who aren't there – chiefly his estranged wife, Sheila (Tamara Tunie), who pops up to periodically tell him what a fool he is.

Rom, meanwhile, scrubs himself up and and borrows a hand-me-down suit from a compassionate lawyer (Anthony Michael Hall), then insinuates himself into the upstate home-studio of the artist and into the bed of his free-wheeling sister Moira (Ann Magnuson), all the while in search of evidence.

And here's where I begin to have a little trouble with the premise. We're meant to believe that Rom, who has lost it to the degree that he can no longer take care of himself or differentiate between delusions and reality, can pull it together enough to hang at cocktail parties with contemporary art world movers and shakers. Oh, wait a minute, I know people like that.

Okay, so the movie's only a bit "Hollywood." Homeless lunatics are always misunderstood geniuses, aren't they? And the denouement in which the real killer is set up to spill his guts for the camera is straight out of the Agatha Christie playbook.

Still, Jackson's convincing portrayal of an untethered psyche scrambling for purchase on the slippery slope of sanity and Lemmons's arresting cinematic vision, in which we see the world through the eyes of a man continually descending into – and resurfacing out of – madness, is enough.

I can hear the pitch for the spin-off TV series now: "He's a crime-solving lunatic who lives in a cave and dates hot chicks!" Maybe it's asking too much of the audience to expect them to buy into such a far-fetched notion, but if anyone can sell the idea of, as Sheila calls Rom, "some psycho Sherlock Holmes," it's Samuel L. Jackson.

"The Caveman's Valentine" (R, 105 minutes) – Contains obscenity, brief nudity, an arty sex scene, gunplay and glimpses of torture.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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