Mad genius

Samuel L. Jackson rocks in Caveman's Valentine

If The Caveman's Valentine has you hoping for a bona fide caveman movie, a la Quest for Fire or One Million Years B.C., you'll be disappointed. "Caveman" is the nickname of Samuel L. Jackson's character Romulus "Rom" Ledbetter, a piano prodigy turned New York street person. "I'm not homeless — I live in a cave," Ledbetter points out.
Plagued by hallucinations and paranoid delusions, Rom isn't a likely detective or romantic leading man, yet The Caveman's Valentine gives him both of those roles, and the incongruity makes the film as intriguing as it is perplexing. The story may not be convincing or completely comprehensible, but Jackson and director Kasi Lemmons compellingly keep your attention.
Peering through a curtain of dreadlocks and prone to impromptu curbside sermons, Rom is cut from the same cloth as Robin Williams' homeless knight-errant in The Fisher King. His dominant fantasy has someone named Stuyvesant ruling America from the Chrysler Building, controlling people with Z-rays, and we see memorable shots of the tower glowing in unnatural colors with eerie searchlights scanning the streets.
"I've got legions of angels up here!" Rom declaims, pointing at his head, and when he's seized with his musical impulses, we see him playing piano in a cathedral-like setting, surrounded by half-naked models with wings. In his mind's eye he's teased by his wife (Tamara Tunie) as her younger self, and he's also prone to watch images on a dead television, and that's where he sees a body abandoned in the park where he lives. He finds a real body the next morning.
Although the official cause of death is exposure to the wintry elements, Rom is convinced he's witnessed a murder, and he vows to track down the killer to earn the respect of his daughter (Aunjanue Ellis), a policewoman. Considering his mental state, it's rather like watching the guy from Shine playing sleuth. Rom finds a prime suspect in a celebrated photographer named David Leppenraub (Colm Feore), who has a fondness for angels in his work and S&M in his leisure.
Adapting his own Edgar Award-winning book, scripter George Dawes Green employs the kind of coincidences and quirky characterizations that novels can get away with much more easily than films. It's hard to accept that any friendship, however tenuous, would evolve between bedraggled Rom and a slick bankruptcy lawyer (Anthony Michael Hall). Yet he proves an improbable ally, offering Rom an old suit when the former pianist talks his way into performing at Leppenraub's art party.
When Rom cleans up and dons the dark suit, Jackson looks like his hit-man character from Pulp Fiction, only as if he's actually channeling an old testament prophet, not quoting one. Jackson provides the movie's grandest visual effect, whipping his dreadlocks while playing piano and booming his lines like the voice of God. Yet he has moments of unexpected lucidity as well, particularly when he romances Leppenraub's bohemian sister (Ann Magnuson). It's impossible to imagine the film succeeding without Jackson.
Caveman's dramatic tension comes less from the fear that Rom will be targeted by the murderer — for a long time we're skeptical that a killer even exists — but wondering whether he can maintain a demeanor of sanity in high-pressure situations, like social gatherings for Manhattan's Masters of the Universe. When Rom is offered a "Lime Ricky" by a penthouse of predatory lawyers, we can't really blame him for having a meltdown. But though the movie respects Rom's independence, it tends to view his psychological state as an excuse for cinematic visions and outlandish behavior, and not as a form of sickness.
The film falls apart at its resolution, displaying less interest in logically explaining who done it than in advancing the uneasy theme that all artists are morally or mentally off-kilter. But Colm Feore proves appropriately icy and self-assured as the sinister photographer, and his work and Rom's visions suggest such popular art influences as Robert Mapplethorpe and R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" video.
The Caveman's Valentine almost counts as a sophomore slump for director Lemmons, who made such an impressive debut with the delicate, bittersweet Eve's Bayou. But with her visual flair and Jackson's commanding screen presence, The Caveman's Valentine comes across like Romulus himself. He doesn't make much sense, but you can't stop listening.