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'Valentine' Tempts Fate Once Too Often

Samuel L. Jackson stars as the mentally ill Romulus, the center of a saga that defies credibility.


"The Caveman's Valentine" affords Samuel L. Jackson a showy and challenging role in George Dawes Green's adaptation of his 1994 thriller novel, but the film is highly uneven, too often defying credibility, especially in its reliance on coincidence, and too often it slips way over the top. As impressive as Jackson is and as thought-provoking as director Kasi Lemmons' movie is, it's ultimately satisfying neither as a genre piece nor as an art film.

Jackson stars as the dreadlocked Romulus Ledbetter, a once-happy family man and a Juilliard-trained pianist-composer who, on the brink of a brilliant career, slides into mental illness that he describes as "brain typhoid." We never, alas, learn what triggered this mental breakdown beyond an opinion that he was afraid of success. In any event, he lives in a cave in a woodsy, rocky section of what seems to be Central Park but may not be.

He is convinced that a never-seen, all-powerful figure he calls Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant--as in Vanderbilt, Jay and Peter--has brought him low with his powerful rays emanating from his aerie in the top of the Chrysler Building. It would seem this malevolent superman represents the collectively historic forces of oppression unleashed on people in society's lower rungs.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 10, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Character name--In the March 2 review of "The Caveman's Valentine," a character's name was incorrect. The murdered model was Scotty (played by Sean MacMahon). Matthew (played by Rodney Eastman) was a friend of the model.

Instead of "bats in his belfry," Romulus has moths--visions of black men with wings, or as he calls them, moth seraphs. They seem to embody the "winged thoughts" of Shakespeare's "Henry V," flailing round in frustration in Romulus' head, needing him to straighten them out and make them fly right. On the plus side, Romulus has frequent visions of his beautiful estranged wife Sheila (Tamara Tunie) in her youth, ever ready to give him no-nonsense advice.

One wintry day a young homeless man, Matthew (Rodney Eastman), with whom Romulus is acquainted, swiftly passes him on the street, pausing only to scrawl "Help Me" on a wall. Soon afterward Romulus emerges from his cave to find the young man's frozen corpse perched in a nearby tree. Romulus is overcome by a desire to see justice done for his dead aquaintance and is aware that to accomplish this tall order he must strive to keep his demons at bay, perhaps even using them to intuit the truth of how the youth died.

When Romulus' policewoman daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), with whom he has a strained relationship, is skeptical that Matthew was murdered rather than merely freezing to death in the park, Romulus realizes he is on his own. Matthew had been a model for photographer David Leppenraub (Colm Feore, suitably arch) celebrated for his photos of martyred angels. In the name of art--or his own dark needs, perhaps?--has Leppenraub actually drugged, tortured and possibly even slaughtered models for his photographs?

Romulus manages to wrangle an invitation to a swank party at Leppenraub's country estate, shared with his sculptor sister Moira (Ann Magnuson). With his chronic fears and visions, Romulus struggles to stay in focus and proceed in his increasingly dangerous investigation.

"The Caveman's Valentine" reteams Jackson with director Lemmons, who in her notable 1997 feature debut film, "Eve's Bayou," cast the actor as the head of an aristocratic Louisiana Creole family. With "Caveman," Lemmons is surely a risk-taker, inspiring Jackson in a daring bravura portrayal, and she makes clear each twist and turn of Green's plot. But she can't make this improbable tale convincing on the screen.

Romulus' visions tend toward the overly literal, and the film is marred by a seriously hazy sense of time and distance--one second, Romulus is departing the Leppenraub farm, the next he's standing in front of his wife and daughter's home, clearly some distance from Manhattan.

Handsomely designed by Robin Standefer and evocatively scored by Terence Blanchard, "The Cavemen's Valentine" has much worthwhile on its mind about social inequalities and what constitutes art. But it also has a climactic sequence that depends on more simultaneous coincidences than any film can reasonably hope to sustain. Lemmons certainly deserves credit for tackling such ambitious material, but in this instance it's too flawed for her to be able to make it work.


* MPAA rating: R, for language, some violence and sexuality. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations.

'The Caveman's Valentine'

Samuel L. Jackson: Romulus

Colm Feore: Leppenraub

Ann Magnuson: Moira

Aunjanue Ellis: Lulu Ledbetter

Tamara Tunie: Sheila Ledbetter


A Universal Focus release of a Jersey Films/Franchise Pictures production. Director Kasi Lemmons. Producers Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Scott Frank, Elie Samaha, Andrew Stevens. Screenplay by George Dawes Green; based on his novel. Cinematographer Amelia Vincent. Editor Terilyn Shropshire. Music Terence Blanchard. Costumes Denise Cronenberg. Production designer Robin Standefer. Art director Grant Van Der Slagt. Set designer Michael Madden. Set decorator Peter Nick. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

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