The Caveman's Valentine

George Dawes Green's book The Caveman's Valentine is notable for one thing: the bizarre names. Do normal people with these names live in the real world? Romulus Ledbetter, David Leppenraub, and Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant? Okay, the last one is just a product of Ledbetter's (Samuel L. Jackson, Unbreakable, Shaft) extremely active imagination. Ledbetter is a Juilliard trained musician who know lives in a cave. Visions of moth seraphs plague him, and he constantly rails at Stuyvesant, whom he believes lives in a tower and watches everybody's moves. He is tall, loud, dreadlocked, and abruptly changes from rambling rants to lucid arguments.

Ledbetter finds a dead homeless man outside his cave, and believes that he can find the man's killer. His daughter Lulu (Aunjunue Ellis Men of Honor, In Too Deep), a policeman, believes he is merely mad. His investigation leads him to Leppenraub (Colm Feore, Titus, The Insider), a Mapplethorpe-like photographer. Leppenraub used the victim as a model in many of his photographs, which picture angels in various states of despair. Like many movies, The Caveman's Valentine relies on a series of coincidences. However, it seems that here there are more, and they become increasingly far-fetched. Ledbetter knows exactly what to say at just the right time, and always seems to run into the right people, whether it is Leppenraub's sister Moira (Ann Magnuson, Love and Sex, Small Soldiers), an old classmate, or a generous lawyer.

The most uneven element is Jackson's characterization of Ledbetter. The script cannot decide on whether Ledbetter is insane or a genius. Is his rambling truly that of a madman, or does it hide his intelligence? It does not walk the line where both seem applicable. Consequently, Ledbetter's personality swings dramatically during the film, lessening the overall impact of his character. Jackson is a great actor, but here falls into the same trap that plague lesser actors. Louder is not necessarily better. He yells his lines and wildly gesticulates. Part of this is his character, the rest is overkill. Just because Ledbetter is purportedly insane does not mean his performance need be so over-the-top. Jackson has moments with Ellis where he is more sedate, almost normal, and the restraint he uses here when slipping slowly into dementia work much better.

The standout scenes are the ones that occur inside Ledbetter's mind, where director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) shows what he thinks. He sits at a piano and plays while the moth-seraphs accompany and dance around him. The images are surreal and cut quickly from shot to shot, never focusing too long on the scenes around him. Sadly, there are too few of these scenes, and they do not last long enough. This is a fairly standard murder-mystery, which is a disappointment. Everybody expected so much more for director Lemmons' second film. Granted, expectations were high after the critical success of her first, but this is merely plain.

Mongoose Rates It: Not That Good.
1 hour, 45 minutes, Rated R for language, some violence, and sexuality.

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