The Caveman’s Valentine (Kasi Lemmons, 2001)
[originally posted 5Dec2001]
Lemmons, who gave us the well-above-average Eve’s Bayou a few years back, helms George Dawes Green’s adaptation of his own award-winning debut novel about a schizophrenic pianist, Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson), who wakes up one morning, walks out of his New York cave (yes, they do still have caves in New York, at least if you believe Green, and homeless people live in them), and discovers a frozen body in a tree. This may not be anything other than par for the course in winter in New York, but Ledbetter is convinced that the man’s death is anything other than natural. Of course, Ledbetter is also convinced that the Chrysler building is inhabited by an evil overlord named Cornelius Beford Stuyvesant (groove on the name for a few minutes, if you’re acquainted with the early history of NYC) who’s out to kill him. So no one, least of all his daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s love interest in Men of Honor), wants to take him seriously. But Lulu, an NYC police officer, is a subordinate of the guy who ends up running the case. What’s a girl to do? Add to this the fact that the dead guy’s boyfriend, Matt (Rodney Eastman, of many indie films and a couple of Nightmare on Elm Street flicks—he played Joey, the mute guy), DOES believe Ledbetter, and provides him with the name of the killer, internationally-renowned photographer David Leppenraub (Colm Feore, who’s been in most every movie made in the past decade). Ledbetter starts digging around to see whether there’s a murder here to investigate, and, as we all know, complications ensue.
The movie is cast perfectly, from Jackson all the way down to the relatively minor part played by an almost unrecognizable Anthony Michael Hall (who really does deserve a lot more high-profile roles; the guy is just plain good). The script is well-done and moves along at a proper pace, never letting the action drop even when exploring its various subplots. Okay, Leppenraub is a little too obviously modeled on Mapplethorpe, but we’ll forgive Green since the rest of it’s so well-done. But the key to the whole performance is Jackson himself, who gives a career-best performance as Ledbetter. Schizophrenia may never have been filmed as well as it is here. Rather than go for the Hollywood-style nutcase one normally associates with filmed depictions of schizophrenia, Lemmons and Jackson take the DSM-IIIR route and hand us a character who’s, ironically, not as believable unless you’ve read a whole lot of scizophrenia case studies. Then you realize just how perfect a depiction this is, and your jaw hits the floor, both at Jackson’s wonderful performance and the fact that Hollywood let this movie slip through the cracks.
Very much worth going well out of your way to see, especially if you like Sam Jackson. Lots of interest from indie circles, too, as many indie-film darlings show up here. Hard to believe this movie got almost no press given the cast, but so it happened. Very highly recommended. ****