Caveman’s Valentine, The (2001): Kasi Lemmons Sophomore Jinx

Sundance Film Festival 2001The Caveman’s Valentine, Kasi Lemmons’ second feature, is a sophomore jinx, a vastly disappointing film, one that tries to mix different styles and various narrative threads to mostly poor results.

Samuel L. Jackson, who also starred in Lemmons’ debut, Eve’s Bayou, gives a courageously eccentric performance as a homeless man, haunted by delusions of a powerful adversary, suddenly finding himself involved as a detective in sleazy murder mystery. Universal Focus will have to overcome negative reviews and, at best, lukewarm word-of-mouth in marketing a film that, despite some powerful and touching moments, is burdened by a pretentious screenplay, pregnant with symbolic messages that are either too obvious or not entirely explained.

Lemmons’ first feature, Eve’s Bayou, was a modest but impressively mounted film that benefited from a new angle on the African American experience–it centered on a rich, educated black family-and from a distinctly female perspective in telling the story of a young girl’s coming-of-age. In contrast, Caveman’s Valentine comes across as a messy, incoherent, and impersonal endeavor due to its wider canvas and broader goal, aiming to be a neo-Gothic thriller with religious and s spiritual overtones.

The only element that unifies both productions is the work of the talented cinematographer Amelia Vincent, whose sharp lensing endows each film with a visual imagery that highlights its specific social context.

Caveman’s milieu is one seldom seen in American features: It depicts the physical and social world of the homeless. Jackson plays Romulus Ledbetter, an outcast living in a netherworld on the edge of Manhattan. The story quickly establishes that Romulus is a former Julliard-trained classical musician and a previously devoted family man. At present, however, he’s an outcast who seriously holds that his life is controlled by a malevolent enemy, one called Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, situated atop the famous Chrysler building. Though no one believes him, Romulus continues to engage in a lively dialogue with this impersonal presence that for him stands for all the vices of American capitalism and its cherished bourgeois way of life marked by conspicuous consumerism.

In the film’s first cliche (and many more follow), Romulus is depicted as a man caught on the sharp edge between genius and madness; weird outsiders are often portrayed in American culture as misunderstood geniuses. This blurred distinction is brought to the surface, when Romulus is drawn out of his “temporary insanity” to track down the killer of a young drifter, Scotty (Sean MacMahon), whose frozen corpse he finds up on a tree next to his cave-like dwelling.

But who is going to believe the ranting of a paranoid schizophrenic Certainly not his daughter, Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), a bright police officer, still bruised by her parents’ separation. And certainly not his new privileged friends in Manhattan’s chic art world, who adopt him for a while, lending him decent clothes to attend a big art event in Upstate New York, at the house of David Leppenraub (Colm Feore), a celeb art photographer who used–and seemingly abused–Scotty as a model in a series of photos about torture and pain.

The narrative’s second–and worse–half follows an obsessive Romulus, utterly alone with his voices and visions, as he risks his life in an effort to piece together a twisted puzzle and brings justice to another lost soul. Most of the scenes here not only defy logic and credibility, but resort to the most obvious and familiar elements of a routine Hollywood conspiracy thriller in which a saintly man stands alone against the entire universe.

In several disturbing but unengaging acts, Romulus befriends and romances the artist’s bohemian sister, Moira (Ann Magnuson), who provides crucial clues about David’s workshop and tools in executing his art. The other woman in Romulus’ life is his estranged wife Sheila (Tamara Tunie), who periodically appears in his visions to remind him of his past errors, particularly his failure as a father.

Intentionally or not, Caveman’s Valentine gives a bad name to the art world and its selfish, fame-oriented denizens who would do anything to capture media attention. Ultimately, the film collapses under pressure from its overreaching intents and pretensions, failing to satisfy viewers’ expectations as either a suspenseful murder mystery or a spiritual redemption saga.

The script, written by George Dawes Green based on his 1994 award-winning novel, is severely flawed. But the verdict on Lemmons as a director remains open, for she certainly demonstrates ability to orchestrate a large-scale production with numerous characters, locales, and special effects.

Jackson’s dominant performance helps only up to a point. He too is forced to navigate, none too smoothly, in a yarn that frequently changes tone and mood. Mostly engaging, but also over the top, it’s not a particularly impressive turn for the otherwise reliable actor.