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When Truth Is Left Behind on the Streets

'The Caveman's Valentine' is just the latest movie to depict the homeless as either geniuses or saints.

March 16, 2001|EMANUEL LEVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When it comes to the depiction of homelessness, Hollywood has taken a benign, almost mythical view of one of America's most disturbing problems. Glossing over the issue, the few movies that broach the subject have presented a stereotypically sanitized portrait, turning the homeless into noble saints or misunderstood geniuses.

The latest example is Kasi Lemmons' "The Caveman's Valentine," in which Samuel L. Jackson plays Romulus Ledbetter, a down-on-his-luck, Juilliard-trained composer and pianist. An outcast living in a nether world on the edge of Manhattan, the delusional Romulus believes his life is controlled by a powerful adversary he calls Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant. He engages in a dialogue with this impersonal force that emanates from atop the Chrysler Building and represents all the vices of the American way of life.

In the film's cliched treatment, Romulus is a man trapped between genius and madness. He emerges from his "periodic insanity" to track down the killer of a young model, whose frozen corpse he discovers on a tree outside his cave-like dwelling.

But who would believe the rantings of a paranoid schizophrenic? Certainly not his daughter, who just happens to be a police officer, still bruised by her parents' separation.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 19, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Film title--The 1993 film in which Matt Dillon played a homeless man was "The Saint of Fort Washington." The title was reported incorrectly in an article and photo caption in Friday's Calendar.

And certainly not his new privileged friends of Manhattan's chic art world, who adopt him. Aiming to be a Gothic thriller with spiritual overtones, "Caveman" is undermined by George Dawes Green's pretentious script. Defying credibility, the narrative resorts to a routine Hollywood thriller in which a saintly madman stands alone against the universe--and triumphs, hence redeeming himself.

In that respect, "Caveman's Valentine" follows in the tradition of most Hollywood movies about the homeless. It's no coincidence that many of these films were made in the early 1990s, following the rapaciously corrupt 1980s. Their narratives often bring the jaded rich and famous to the brink of destruction by confronting them with homeless people, forcing them to do penance for their cynicism.

As original and fanciful as Terry Gilliam ("Brazil") is as a filmmaker, he too fell victim to cliches in "The Fisher King" (1991), another mythical tale of redemption by Richard LaGravenese. Early on, a TV executive pitches a weekly comedy series about the homeless that will show them as "wacky and wise."

The movie that follows is not that series, but it is burdened by a cluttered plot driven by a mawkish idea. Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a slick, mean-spirited radio star, an emblem of the cold-hearted excesses of the '80s. His career comes to an end when a deranged caller to his talk show, responding to the host's insults, commits a mass murder in a yuppie bar. Three years later, the demoralized and barren Jack is at the end of his rope when he meets Parry (Robin Williams), an eccentric derelict who takes his cues from visions of "cute little fat people."

A casualty of that bar tragedy, Parry isn't a clinical case. Like Romulus, he's an educated man; he once taught medieval history.

Calling himself "the janitor of God," he holds that the Holy Grail is "God's symbol of divine grace," with him as a knight on a special quest. A gentle soul, driven mad by grief, he chatters aimlessly and cavorts naked in Central Park.

At one point, disheveled, drunk and mistaken for a homeless man, Jack is about to be set on fire by vigilantes when Parry, using a garbage-can lid as a shield and wearing a blanket as a cape, saves him from the attackers. In due course, the two redeem each other, each playing a contemporary version of the mythic hero who finds the Holy Grail.

Many of these films also imbue the homeless with prophetic powers or visions. In "Caveman's Valentine," Romulus sees powerful green and yellow rays beaming from the top of the Chrysler Building, and in "Fisher King," Parry envisions an armored Red Knight riding a red horse, trailing billows of flame.

Even directors well attuned to the zeitgeist look badly out of touch when they attempt movies about more serious issues. Take John Hughes, the king of 1980s youth movies, and "Curly Sue," the story of con artists Curly Sue (Alison Porter), a smart girl, and Bill, her decent guardian (James Belushi), who wander into the path of a high-powered divorce lawyer, Grey (Kelly Lynch), when she hits Bill with her Mercedes. A heart-tugging sentimentality is laid over the narrative, though Curly Sue, like the girl played by Tatum O'Neal in "Paper Moon," is assured, precocious and manipulative.

When she tells Grey, "You got an awful lot of pillows for just one person," the lawyer's maternal stirrings are awakened. Then, an immaculately groomed Bill proves his talent by playing "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" on the piano in Grey's lush apartment. Only in a Hollywood movie would a lawyer take derelicts home, clean them up, buy them new clothes and discover they are just like she is--only more virtuous and in touch with their emotions.

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