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A Head Ruled by Heart

By Rita Kempley
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)
Romulus Ledbetter could be said to have bats in his belfry, but he believes swarms of easily startled ebony seraphim have actually roosted there.Shimmering celestials with moths' wings, they flutter about with the best of intentions. But sometimes a man like Romulus can have too many guardian angels dancing in his head.

Such is the case in "The Caveman's Valentine," an intriguing, visually startling murder mystery that showcases the virtuosity of Samuel L. Jackson. The schizophrenic Romulus is an actor's dream role, and Jackson takes full advantage of the richness of the character: loving father, loyal friend and ranting visionary. And he's flying without a net, all stops out.

Romulus, a Juilliard-schooled pianist, appeared destined for stardom before his brain turned on him, the keys began to play themselves and his nemesis atop the Chrysler Building began to bombard him with green death rays. Although Romulus has moments of lucidity, his delusions are never far away.

Then one February morning he discovers the frozen corpse of a handsome young man hanging from a tree outside the cave he calls home. Since the victim was a drifter, the police dismiss his death. But the Caveman becomes convinced the boy was murdered by David Leppenraub (the glacial Colm Feore), a prominent and creepy art photographer for whom the young man modeled.

Needless to say, nobody believes Romulus, not even his daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), a young police officer longing for the father she remembers from her childhood. So Romulus, struggling to maintain a measure of sanity, resolves to bring the killer to justice and prove himself to Lulu. She doesn't believe he can, and the question throughout is, Should we?

In setting about his mission, Romulus trims his waist-length dreadlocks, shaves his beard, borrows a suit from a compassionate lawyer (Anthony Michael Hall) and finagles his way into Leppenraub's compound. Allegedly Romulus has written a composition inspired by the photographer's grisly art and will perform it at a weekend party.

Like the hero of "Shine," Romulus first broke down in the middle of a concert, and to carry out his mission, he must overcome his terror of performing.It's impossible to ascertain whether Romulus is hallucinating or truly making music because Kasi Lemmons, who directed Jackson in her first film, "Eve's Bayou," keeps the audience off balance -- sometimes a touch too bewildered -- with a storm of images from Romulus's psyche. Along with the moths and the rays, he has visions of his estranged wife (Tamara Tunie) and sees programs on his inoperative TV. They all seem to coexist with reality -- not that any of us can be sure what that is.

George Dawes Green, who adapted "Valentine" from his Edgar Award-winning novel, follows the genre's conventions and populates the story with such familiar characters as the dangerous dame (Ann Magnuson), the devious adversary and the bruisers in the adversary's employ. It's rather wonderful, however, that the detective on this case is scrambled instead of hard-boiled.

"The Caveman's Valentine"(105 minutes) is rated R for language, some violence and sexuality.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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