Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Caveman's Valentine

2.5/4

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Colm Feore, Ann Magnuson, Aunjanue Ellis, Tamara Tunie. Anthony Michael Hall

Rated R for Language, Some Violence and Sexuality

The challenge of turning "The Caveman's Valentine" into a film must have been irresistible for Kasi Lemmons.  Think of the creative and psychological possibilities offered in getting inside the head of a paranoid schizophrenic via the film medium.  While I admire Lemmons's guts, her talents just aren't enough to make this any more than a gimmick.

Romulus Ledbetter (Jackson), or "Rom," for short, was once a brilliant pianist at Julliard.  But his mental health deteriorated and now he's living in a cave in a New York City park.  He believes that a man named Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant lives at the top of the Empire State Building and is trying to control him through X, Y, and Z rays.  When a homeless man is found frozen to death in a tree outside his cave, Rom thinks that it's Stuyvesant.  But when a junkie claims it was renowned photographer (and all around creep) by the name of Leppenraub (Feore), Rom starts to investigate, much to the irritation of his cop daughter, Lulu (Ellis).  The question is, was it really murder or just another delusion?  And if it is true, can Rom get anyone to believe him?

Obviously, the film rests on Lemmons' ability to get the audience inside Rom's head.  She gives it a game try, but flashing lights, a voiceover, or surreal images don't do the trick.  They seem what they are: cheap gimmicks.  More successful are Rom's delusions of speaking with a younger version of Sheila (Tunie), his ex, but the rules of how her character interacts with Rom aren't clearly stated.  Ron Howard found a better way to do this in "A Beautiful Mind."  Compare that film to this and you'll see what I mean.  More obvious is the trap that Rom's psychotic episodes seem to happen when it is the most convenient for the plot.  Anyone who watches it will instantly realize that he's never going to go crazy while he's getting important information.

Samuel L. Jackson is one of our most brilliant, volcanic and versatile actors now working.  But here, he's obviously struggling at times, particularly at the beginning.  It takes a while for us to accept his character, but once we do, it becomes a lot smoother ride.  He's surrounded by a group of solid character actors, none of whom are known names but all have talent.  Colm Feore is at his oily best as the arrogant Leppenraub, whose tastes run in the direction of the, shall we say, exotic.  Few actors can play an arrogant bastard well enough to make you want to hit them as soon as you see them on screen, but he can.  Ann Magnuson adds some sex appeal as Moira, Leppenraub's sister who knows the down and dirty about her brother, except the truth.  And Aunjanue Ellis is adorable as the daughter who loves and is hurt by her father.

Although the film's central mystery is compelling in a B-grade indie movie sort of way, it is filled with more than a few obvious contrivances.  Especially how others in the elite social circles react to him.  People like a yuppie banker named Bob (Hall), Moira, and Leppenraub view Rom as either a charity case or a sideshow attraction.  It's both unbelievable and insulting.

I was tempted to say "see it if you must," but upon further reflection, I have to suggest giving this one a pass.

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