The Caveman's Valentine
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Reviewed by Jeremy Russell
Monday, March 26 2001, 2:20 PM
"I'm not homeless. I live in a case." Romulus Ledbetter, a.k.a. Caveman (Samuel L. Jackson), says this so much in The Caveman's Valentine that it becomes his calling card. It's his line, like 007 telling people he's "Bond...James Bond." And the similarities between Caveman and Bond don't stop there. They both have operatives that give them secret information, although Caveman's is a mental projection of his ex-wife who shuffles vixen-like through his thoughts warning him of danger as regularly as Spider-Man's "spidey sense." They both have unique equipment, although the Caveman's is a broken unplugged TV that works like a crystal ball. And they are both facing off against world dominating forces, although S.P.E.C.T.O.R. has been replaced by Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, another projection who sprays dangerous rays of colored light all over downtown New York and is clearly a metaphor for the soul crushing aspects of corporate capitalism. "You see me, Stuyvesant, I'm a free man," Caveman yells. He may not be quite as worldly and sophisticated as Bond, but he did attend Julliard and is a genius-level musical composer. And he does get the girls (and even the boys think he has "a beautiful face." If he doesn't look the part of the swashbuckling crime fighter for the first half of the movie, it's only because he's a mumbling to himself and living on the street. He's not the first superhero to operate out of a cave, that would be Batman, but he is the first one to be a homeless schizophrenic.
Because of this, I had high hopes for Caveman's Valentine, and at first I didn't think they were going to be disappointed. Kasi Lemmons's (Eve's Bayou) film work was smart enough to evoke a schizophrenic confusion, with multiple camera angles and film techniques, and yet clear enough to still tell a story. The symbolic representations of Romulus's mental illness, namely a bunch of buff dudes in moth seraph duds that are supposed to be traipsing through Rom's head, were well costumed and evocative. The dialogue is witty at worst and often sparkles, as when Rom tells Moira Leppenraub (Ann Magnuson) that his problem is that he "has brain typhoons." The acting was all top notch. Jackson, although not a completely convincing lunatic, is especially good at making his character sympathetic without being tragic and humorous without being ridiculous. And, perhaps most importantly, the movie doesn't miss many opportunities for social commentary about haves and have-nots, nor does it sentimentalize the plight of the homeless.
The problem with Caveman's Valentine is the story. It's a poorly constructed, plodding detective narrative that has Romulus investigating the murder of a street youth to prove his masculinity to his daughter. Through a series of implausible coincidences Rom is led to the murderer about an hour and a half after the audience already knows who dunnit. And as it turns out the killer intentionally put the dead body in front of Rom's cave, although why remains unclear. The most insulting part is the killers. One of them wasn't even part of the plot and the other one, well...
It's sad that a movie which expends so much energy redeeming a character who is so often tangential comic relief, i.e. the wacky homeless soothsayer, or frightening and dangerous, i.e. the homeless maniac, only to scapegoat another subgroup through prejudicial stereotyping. The villains are all the same homosexual S&M perverts that were supposed to be so scary in 8mm. Although in this case they're supposed to be high art pain/snuff wackos rather than porno sleaze balls. The movie seems to take the attitude: Hey, Rom may homeless, crazy and black but he isn't as bad as those decadent faggots. Is it always necessary to create sympathy for one oppressed group, by exploiting bigotry about another?
As dumb as this all is, Valentine redeems itself somewhat with a subplot involving Anthony Michael Hall. Hall, who was always the loveable geek in teen flicks by John Hughes until he did a turn as a creepy jock in Edward Scissorhands, is perfectly cast as a Bob, the bankruptcy lawyer who becomes by turns fascinated, sympathetic and friendly towards Caveman. The complex rapport between the two is spot on and the difficulties that they surmount to attempt a kind of friendship are amusing and telling. The scene when Bob first takes Rom home to meet his wife is particularly hilarious. Naturally, there is allegory at work in their paring. In other words, Hall got the part that Jeff Bridges had in The Fischer King.
Unlike The Fischer King, Valentine paints a more realistic picture of the relationship between a man of privilege and a crazy homeless person. The attorney, rich and secure, is perfectly happy to have Romulus around, especially when he discovered that Rom is a ripping good piano player. And ultimately it is Rom who severs the relationship, rejecting the rich white man and his friends at a party because he sees that however nice they might be to him, they are in league with Stuyvesant. He toasts before he leaves to the endless cycle of "failure and redemption, which seems to have become stuck with certain people always coming out on top."