[Screen It]

(2001) (Samuel L. Jackson, Colm Feore) (R)

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Drama/Suspense: Despite no one believing him and having to deal with the voices, visions and fears he repeatedly experiences, a paranoid schizophrenic tries to prove that a conspiracy is involved after discovering a frozen body outside his city park cave.
Romulus Ledbetter (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) is a former Julliard-trained musician who snapped some time ago and is now a paranoid schizophrenic living in a park cave outside Manhattan. Everyone knows of Romulus, a.k.a. the Caveman, and his delusional ranting, including his daughter Lulu (AUNJANUE ELLIS), a city cop, and Sheila (TAMARA TUNIE), his estranged wife.

Thus, when Romulus truly finds the frozen body of Scott Gates, a homeless twenty-year-old, perched in a tree outside his cave, no one will buy into his theory that the person responsible is his omnipresent adversary, Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, whom he believes watches his every move from atop the Chrysler building.

Although Lulu and the rest of the police believe that Gates simply froze to death, Romulus believes the man was murdered, a theory confirmed by one of Gates' friends, Matthew (RODNEY EASTMAN), a homeless junkie. It seems that Gates formerly worked as a model for acclaimed art photographer David Leppenraub (COLM FEORE), and after they had a falling out, planned to blackmail him with a tape allegedly showing the photographer torturing Gates. Accordingly, Matthew believes Leppenraub had Gates murdered, all of which feeds into Romulus' conspiracy-laden mind.

After briefly investigating the photographer and discovering they have a common acquaintance, Arnold (DAMIR ANDREI), Romulus borrows an old suit from a compassionate lawyer, Bob (ANTHONY MICHAEL HALL), and his wife Betty (KATE McNEIL), and then heads with Arnold to a fundraiser where Leppenraub will be appearing. There, Romulus not only gets to meet the photographer and play detective, but he also meets Leppenraub's sister, Moira (ANN MAGNUSON), and Joey (JAY RODAN), the young man who allegedly shot the torture videotape.

From that point on, and while dealing with various delusional visions - including those of odd emanations of light from the Chrysler building and a much younger Sheila who talks to him and acts as his muse - Romulus must overcome his own mental instability, and everyone's else's doubts about him and his theories, as he tries to solve the murder.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Back when I worked in the U.S. Senate, I knew various legislative correspondents whose jobs were to read and, if appropriate or necessary, reply to all of the mail that their Senator's received. Among the various complaints, suggestions and requests they'd be sent - back in the days before email - they'd also occasionally get letters from individuals who - how shall I put this politely - had a few screws loose.

Often accompanied by pictures, sketches and diagrams, the delusion correspondences would make even Oliver Stone and any conspiracy buffs raise their eyebrows in amused disbelief. Among some of the more entertaining and/or troubling letters included talk of Lee Harvey Oswald still being alive and operating off a docked, Navy cruiser in Norfolk, Virginia, as well as claims of some high-tech dental transmitter bugs being placed in the writers' fillings that allowed the CIA, FBI, American Dental Association and other such "evil" organizations to track their every move around the clock.

While reading such letters with those fantastical theories and rants, I obviously felt sorry for the writers. Yet, at the same time, the budding screenwriter in me could think of nothing but the fact that their stories would make great films and that, if nothing else, the crazed authors certainly must have led intriguing and certainly never dull lives. Of course, I also under wondered what would happen if those people's stories - no matter how unlikely -were true or if they actually stumbled across some wrongdoing, since no one would obviously believe them.

It turns out that was the gist of author George Dawes Green's 1994 novel, "The Caveman's Valentine," the story of such a deranged individual who lives in a cave, discovers a body and then must contend with his own delusional thinking and the doubts of others regarding his efforts and allegations while trying to solve the crime. I don't know if the genesis of Green's novel stemmed from similar readings as mine, but the premise of his story certainly had plenty of potential and earned the novelist an Edgar Award for best first mystery novel.

Now the novelist - who also wrote "The Juror" - had adapted his story the big screen. As directed by Kasi Lemmons, who made quite an impression with her first directorial effort, "Eve's Bayou," "The Caveman's Valentine" has an intriguing premise, another standout performance from lead actor Samuel L. Jackson, and a terrific overall visual and storytelling sense.

Unfortunately, it also occasionally feels a but uneven in how the protagonist's illness is portrayed and plays out (regardless of how accurate it might actually be), the eventual revelation of facts regarding the murder mystery isn't particularly mysterious or intriguing enough to blow viewers away, and the film takes on too much of a Hollywood type ending, somewhat betraying all that was built up and transpired before it.

Up until that point, however, the film earns a lot of points and appreciation for at least trying to be something different from much of the cookie-cutter cinematic pablum that's routinely shoved down viewers' throats week after week. Much of that stems from Lemmons' terrific visual approach at telling the story and her obvious confidence behind the camera. The film's various scenes - shot by cinematographer Amelia Vincent ("Jawbreaker," "Eve's Bayou") - have a unique, signature style all of their own, musician Terence Blanchard's score is haunting, and much like the director's freshman effort, the film is thus constantly mesmerizing to watch.

From a moviegoing experience, however, it's the film's rather unique protagonist that makes the story stand out and near constantly come off as intriguing. Some will obviously think of Robin Williams in "The Fisher King" and Mel Gibson in "Conspiracy Theory" while watching this deluded individual, and it's no big surprise that we'll eventually get to know more about the paranoid schizophrenic as the story progresses and unfolds. Yet, it's nice - and smart -- that some things about him are left unexplored and/or unanswered.

The thing that makes both the character and the film so interesting and compelling is that neither neither he nor we are ever sure whether what he sees, hears or thinks is truly real. While that adds a fun twist and a fresh and reinvigorating spin on the standard detective story, what really makes it work and takes it to another level is the presence of and performance by the great Samuel L. Jackson ("Unbreakable," "Shaft").

An inspired piece of casting, Jackson has previously delivered some intense - and some might say near crazed - performances in the past, and that reputation and demeanor perfectly suit the character here. The only drawback to the role that stood out for me was that his character's various levels of delusion seemed a bit uneven, as if we were seeing different, non-sequential days' worth of shooting assembled together into one continuing piece (which is how they shoot most movies and what explains feigned accents that occasionally vary from one scene to the next).

Of course, I don't personally know any paranoid schizophrenics or crazed homeless people, so I have no frame of realistic reference to how they really act, and Jackson's on-again, off-again performance may be dead on for such a character. It's just that it occasionally feels a bit uneven and thus becomes somewhat distracting at times. It's not a horrible problem, but is one that others will probably notice as well.

Jackson's performance certainly overshadows the rest of those in the film, although that's simply through extravagance and flamboyance, rather than any particular fault regarding the other performers. As the presumed villain, Colm Feore ("Titus," "The Insider") delivers a good take on the ambivalent character that certainly helps fuel the protagonist's paranoia.

Aunjanue Ellis ("Men of Honor," "In Too Deep") is decent as his estranged daughter, although a greater degree of fleshing out probably would have helped the scenes between her and Jackson's character, while Tamara Tunie ("Snake Eyes," "The Peacemaker") appears as the protagonist's wife who mainly shows up as something of a muse-like apparition from his subconscious.

Smaller parts go to Ann Magnuson ("Love and Sex," "Small Soldiers") as a free-spirited woman who befriends and then beds the Caveman, while Jay Rodan (making his debut) shows up as a nervous photographer and Anthony Michael Hall ("The Breakfast Club," "Sixteen Candles") plays a compassionate lawyer. While all of the parts are interesting in their own right, they occasionally feel isolated from the rest of the material - especially the ones with Hall - and may have been more substantial and better developed in Green's novel.

Overall, the film is certainly interesting to watch, particularly due to Jackson's terrific performance and the fine technical work behind the camera. It's just too bad that once the premise is set up, that the details of the mystery and the protagonist's attempt to solve it feel like a bit of a letdown in comparison. While not a horrible fault, that does prevent the film, as a whole, from being as good as it initially appears it will be. "The Caveman's Valentine" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 23, 2001 / Posted March 9, 2001

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