The Caveman's Valentine

             In 1997, actress Kasi Lemmons moved behind the camera to make
     an auspicious writer and director with the atmospheric
EVE'S BAYOU. The
     resulting motion picture announced Lemmons as a potent new voice in
     cinema with a keen eye for casting and the ability to elicit fine performances
     from her cast. For the male lead - a charming ladies' man - she chose
     Samuel L. Jackson, who so believed in the project, he also signed on as
     one of its producers. Now, some four years later, they have reunited as
     producer-star and director on the screen adaptation of George Dawes Green's
     award-winning mystery novel
THE CAVEMAN'S VALENTINE.

             Jackson has the central role of Romulus Ledbetter, a one-time piano
     prodigy who has descended into a delusion state, convinced a man named
     Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant lives in the dome of New York City's Chrysler
     Building and is trying to control Romulus' thoughts through Z-rays. Now
     living as a homeless person in a cave in a park in upper Manhattan,
     Romulus has bouts of lucidity during which he attempts to reach out
     to his estranged daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), a cop, and occasionally
     composes.

             Ledbetter's world is invaded further when he finds the lifeless,
     frozen body of homeless youth Scotty Gates in the tree outside his cave
     on Valentine's day. Although the police initially consider the death
     accidental - Gates was improperly dressed for a recent snap of cold
     weather - Romulus becomes convinced Scotty was murdered, especially
     after his junkie pal Matthew (Rodney Eastman) mentions that Gates
     had ties to a prominent Mapplethorpe-like photographer named David
     Leppenraub (Colm Feore).

             Deciding to play detective, Ledbetter calls on an old college pal
     with ties to Leppenraub and makes plans to travel to the photographer's
     farm in upstate New York. With the assistance of a yuppie lawyer
     (Anthony Michael Hall) and his wife (Kate McNeil), Romulus manages
     to clean up and make himself presentable. Struggling to keep at bay
     his demons - which are literally shown and are also represented by
     hallucinations of his wife Sheila (Tamara Tunie), Romulus sets out
     to prove Leppenraub's connection to Scotty's death.

             Green's screenplay hits most of the marks and the essential
     mystery is a compelling one but somehow all of the disparate parts
     of the story don't quite coalesce. A subplot involving the photographer's
     sister (Ann Magnuson) feels half-formed and there are the occasional
     lapses in logic in the screenplay for which Lemmons' slick direction
     can't quite compensate. Still, the director mostly sidesteps the
     "sophomore curse." Lemmons possesses a keen visual instinct, best
     exemplified by the way she frames her scenes and in the realization
     of "the Skull", the area of Romulus' brain that contains both his
     madness and his creativity. Filled with a motif of angels (which are
     mirrored in Leppenraub's photographs), the Skull was shot with a
     burnished look by director of photography Amelia "Amy" Vincent (who
     also shot
EVE'S BAYOU).

             Lemmons' affinity with her actors shines through and, as in her
     first feature, she offers under-sung actresses an opportunity to
     shine: Aunjanue Ellis has several terrific scenes, and, as the conscience
     of the piece, Tamara Tunie is nothing short of spectacular. The supporting
     cast also does quite well. Ann Magnuson manages to make a fully-rounded
     character from her sketchily written scenes and Colm Feore is perfectly
     cast as the slightly sinister photographer. Newcomer Jay Rodan as
     Leppenraub's latest "assistant" also makes an impression.

             The film, though, rests squarely on the capable shoulders of
     Samuel L. Jackson. Because he is so prolific and has played such a
     wide range of parts, there may be a tendency to forget just how fine
     an actor he truly is. A role like Romulus, with its breadth and scope
     reminds audiences of his capabilities. Veering from angry ranting to
     moments of lucidity, Jackson commands the screen and takes the
     viewer into Romulus' fevered imagination. (One even almost begins
     to believe in his arch-enemy Stuyvesant.)

             Although
THE CAVEMAN'S VALENTINE hits a few rough patches
     and flounders in the end (the denouement is a bit contrived), the superb
     acting and Lemmons' intriguing handling of the material deserve praise.


                             Rating:           B-
                             MPAA Rating:   R (language, some violence and sexuality)
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.