The Caveman's Valentine

on March 02, 2001 by Bridget Byrne
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   There is something very appealing about Samuel L. Jackson as Romulus Ledbetter, the hero of this painterly adaptation of George Dawes Green's cult detective novel. A shade too appealing, perhaps. Jackson, his face wreathed in yards of dreadlocks, conveys the man's genius, the man's madness, the man's normalcy, sometimes even the man's smell, with ease and without vanity. But for some intangible reason, he can't quite overcome an overall hip, cool, trendy tone, which takes a bit of the edge off the story's impact.

   Despite all its good intentions and the talent involved, "The Caveman's Valentine" seems to dance too close to the style of the very world that has marginalized Ledbetter because his rhythms don't correlate. Watching it, one can't quite dismiss the notion that crazyman-as-crimesolver is going to be next season's high concept pitch to the television networks. It's upscale coffee table book content: New York life photographed from an interesting angle, a fresh perspective--striking artifice, but artifice nonetheless.

   That said, Kasi Lemmons' direction moves effectively and often affectively between the milieus of the haves and the have-nots, the homeless and the over-indulged, and just as skillfully in and out of the mind of Ledbetter as he struggles with his own personal brand of schizophrenia while in pursuit of a killer. There are maybe a few too many seraphs swirled in music, but it's a vivid rendering of a mind leaping voids and plunging into imagination. However, the evil presence Ledbetter believes emanates from the Chrysler building never reads as more than a minor gimmick in the whole wondrous miasma of the man's emotions.

   The mystery plot line, though not difficult to fathom, is worked through as well as possible and with an occasional unusual twist--hard to accomplish these days when all the tricks are played out. The acting is never over-indulgent, though there are weak spots. Jackson as the musician-hobo and Aunjanue Ellis as his cop daughter (useful under the circumstances) have some powerful domestic confrontations. Tamara Tunie is a lovely presence as the classy wife who parades unfettered through the homeless man's conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings. But she's a bit too much of a smug spokesperson, so the fact that he prefers to live in his mid-city cave isn't really too surprising. Colm Feore and Ann Magnuson as brother-and-sister art world icons aren't given the opportunity to be more than just set-ups for plot points. Anthony Michael Hall fairs better conveying real dimensions, not just slick surfaces, as an attorney with a heart of gold--or, at least, a free set of clean clothes to offer. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Colm Feore, Ann Magnuson, Aunjanue Ellis, Tamara Tunie and Anthony Michael Hall. Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Written by George Dawes Green. Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Scott Frank, Elie Samaha and Andrew Stevens. A Universal Focus release. Mystery/Drama. Rated R for language, some violence and sexuality. Running time: 103 mi

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