The Caveman’s Valentine is a simple murder mystery, decorated with colorful characters with odd-sounding names. But the artful and interesting depiction of the characters is out of place with the formulaic detective fiction and the result is disappointing.
R for language, violence, sex
Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson) lives in a cave somewhere in or around New York City. The fact that there is such a metropolitan cave, and that it would be as perfectly suited to human habitation as it is, is too strange to be believed. If everything in the film were this strange, Caveman’s Valentine might have been the next Being John Malkovich, but instead the cave is another small detail you’re supposed to buy without laughing.
On Valentine’s Day, “Rom” walks out of his cave to discover the dead, frozen body of someone who had asked him for help the night before.
Romulus attributes the murder (he’s sure it’s a murder) to an ominous Mr. Stuyvesant, whom we quickly learn is a figment of Rom’s paranoid mind. Although he admits that, of course, Stuyvesant wasn’t the murderer, he can’t let go of the thought that this hypothermic death was a murder.
What might have been an interesting character study of a paranoid schizophrenic, turns out to be just a standard, paperback-style murder mystery.
Rom uses the voices in his head and his Juilliard connections (did I mention he was a Juilliard dropout?) to solve the crime. He interviews each witness and suspect, slowly collecting the evidence, following the facts back to the dark, sophisticated world of photographer/artist David Leppenraub (Colm Feore).
In the midst of all this detective work, there is a hint of something more to the movie. Rom and his daughter (Aunjanue Ellis) barely speak to each other, and in one scene they nearly connect on an emotional level. But Rom ruins their heart-to-heart when he reveals he was only using her as a connection to help solve the murder (did I mention she was a New York Cop in the very precinct where the alleged murder took place?).
At the end, predictably, Rom has the murder all figured out and he reveals it in a Hercule Poirot, spell-it-all-out-for-the-audience monologue that on some level, reconnects him with his daughter.
What is interesting about this movie was not the murder mystery but Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of a paranoid schizophrenic. He tells a sympathetic friend “I have brain typhoons.” Director Kasi Lemmons shows us these typhoons as “moth seraphs” living in his head. During bad episodes, the “moths” fly around frantically, every which way. The depiction is inspired and appropriate.
Lemmons gives us other peeks inside his head too. For example, Rom’s deceased wife Sheila (Tamara Tunie) appears as a friendly spirit guide, a sort of muse who keeps him on track. And when Rom sits down in front of a piano, his moths dance to the mood of the music. If the music gets too frantic, Rom suffers a “Shine”-like freakout.
The role of Rom, in fact the whole film, is really a showcase for Jackson’s talents. And aside from an occasionally-distracting hairdo (he has yard-long dreadlocks), he makes the movie worth watching. The only other performance that seemed to break out of the script into a full three dimensions was that of Ann Magnuson, playing a helpful, cautious Moira, skeptical sister of the photographer Leppenraub.
Walking the Line
Ultimately, The Caveman’s Valentine is unsatisfying because there are too many different levels of engagement. The fascinating story of Rom’s insanity is subverted by the mundanity of the murder mystery. And the solidity of the by-the-numbers mystery is subverted by the silliness of the urban cave, the grandiose-sounding names, and the distracting dreadlocks.
It seems like there could have been two or three good movies here. Instead, there was only one, and it wasn’t that good.