13 March 2001 | pc_dean
Hollywood has a difficult time with mental illness. Typically, delusional characters are shown from the outside, with only the actor's performance to give you a clue about what is going on inside.
This is a challenge that "The Caveman's Valentine" meets head-on. In addition to Samuel L. Jackson's fine portrayal, director Kasi Lemmons actually seeks to bring us into his world and show us the things that he sees. In most movies, this is a recipe for failure. Not here.
Samuel L. Jackson's Romulus Ledbetter is a schizophrenic Julliard-trained pianist who lives in a cave in a New York park. He hears music in his head, and is haunted by visions of "moth-seraphs", whom we see in striking surreal imagery that perhaps too much resembles last year's "The Cell" for its own good, but is effective nonetheless. Ledbetter believes in a sinister force which he calls "Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant" (a combination of the names of three significant figures in New York history), who lives atop the Chrysler Building and controls people's minds with "y-rays" and "z-rays." The scenes involving the unseen Stuyvesant are the movie's most effective. The Chrysler Building, itself a symbol of New York's wealth, towers over exterior shots, and shimmers with malevolent green light as traffic lights flash and Ledbetter looks on with horror. The sequences are mesmerizing.
Jackson's performance, too, is notable. Playing a schizophrenic homeless man seems like an opportunity to play big, ranting speeches, but Jackson plays it more subtly. Ledbetter is not a sugary stereotype or an object of pity. Jackson gives him some bite that often makes him unpleasant, but always believable.
Like the character in "Shine", it is implied that Ledbetter cracked under the pressures of genius, and in order to make it through the movie, he has to face the mind-breaking terror of performing on the piano. In one particularly affecting scene, a lawyer (played to smarmy perfection by Anthony Michael Hall; it's good to see him all grown up) asks Ledbetter to play a piece in exchange for the loan of a suit. Ledbetter plays something (which sounds like Donizetti by way of the "Blade Runner" soundtrack), and we can feel the twitchy stress as Ledbetter's fingers touch the keys. Jackson has made us believe.
There is also a vicious humor in the movie's idea that a delusional psychotic, with just a shave and a good suit, can without too much difficulty schmooze with New York art swells. I don't know if this joke is intentional, but it sure is funny.
So, what's wrong with all this? Unfortunately, "The Caveman's Valentine" takes this great, textured performance and this brilliant visual depiction of the landscape of madness and grafts it on to a clunky "Diagnosis Murder"-style plot. The clumsy story, about a death which Ledbetter becomes convinced has to do with a trendy Mapplethorpe-esque photographer, relies heavily on the three c's: coincidence, contrivance, and cliche. It's got more holes than the back wall of a firing range. In addition, Colm Feore is uninteresting as the photographer ("Wild envy surrounds me," he says at one point;) and makes a far less compelling villain than "Stuyvesant." Ann Magnuson is wasted as the photographer's sister.
Jackson is brilliant. Lemmons' visuals are brilliant. You may never look at the Chrysler Building quite the same way again. Unfortunately, there's an old saying in the military: when you mix good troops with bad, you get mediocre. And so it is with the movies, too.