The Caveman's Valentine (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Two thumbs up. 

Scoop's comments in white

This must be the most under-appreciated film since Groundhog Day.

The Caveman's Valentine is a film that I completely loved, despite the fact that on the surface it is a detective story which is obvious and boring as a detective story. But it's just much more than that, and what a beautiful performance by the man - I'm talkin' Samuel L Jackson here, who normally owns every minute he's ever on screen in anything, but in this case exceeding even his own charismatic standards in playing an insane homeless guy trying to solve a crime. If anyone had ever seen this film, ol' Sam'l L might have gotten an Oscar nod.

Unfortunately, this very good film got trapped a bit in its own structure. First of all, the detective premise was shaky because it somewhat misleads the audience members into thinking that they should be trying to solve a murder mystery. In the context of the plot, there are only two people who could have done the murder, and the film points us toward one of them, which almost surely means it was "the other guy". If you ignore the "solution" to the detective story and follow along instead in the Caveman's head, you'll like it a lot more. He is genuinely deranged, and he knows in his lucid moments that he has many moments of madness. His lucid moments and muddled moments cross over, however. Even his lucid self is semi-hallucinatory, living in a dream-world in which his imaginary ex-wife represents his rational thoughts. He's fully aware that he's not the ideal Sherlock Holmes, but he feels a need to solve the damned crime anyway. Of course, he can't hold on to conversations without drifting into his internal world, and he turns every rumor he hears into fuel for his paranoia, so of course he can't solve a murder mystery. Hell, he can barely concentrate enough to complete a sentence or a short piano piece. In fact, before he has a sensible theory to give the police, he's already destroyed his credibility by telling them that it was done by his omnipresent Moriarty with death rays shot from the Chrysler Building. But that doesn't matter. The point is that he knows about his own problems, but has to fight them in order to stay on the trail. Of course, he has everything screwed up, and when he solves the crime it is by accident, only because his accusations against one man hoist a red flag about another man, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that he finds that his own sanity and the esteem of his daughter are worth pursuing.

The film was praised by psychologists and educators for its realistic portrayal of the caveman's mental condition. An anonymous reviewer at summed up the case articulately:

"The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) has honored actor Samuel Jackson, director Kasi Lemmons, and her sister, Dr. Cheryl Lemmons, the psychiatrist who served as a consultant to the movie, with its 2001 Outstanding Media Award for a dramatic motion picture---because of its portrayal of a homeless man with paranoid schizophrenia, who is both protagonist and hero. Jackson's character, Romulus Ledbetter, who solves a murder mystery, is a figure of intelligence, insight, talent and dignity, even as he experiences paranoid delusions and hallucinations (which he calls--correctly--"brain typhoons"). The Caveman defies the stereotypes and stigma usually associated with mental illness, and represents a major, cultural breakthrough for Hollywood. Viewers will come to know and like Romulus as an individual. There are many funny, ironic moments, but he and his illness never are used as the butt of jokes"

I also appreciated the fact that the film doesn't try for some kind of miraculous happy ending where his madness is cured, or he goes back to live with his daughter. In fact, he turns down the daughter's offer, and heads back to his cave. 

The greatest weakness of the film was that it was unrealistic about Jackson's re-introduction into the world. Sure, the man that he once was could easily move through the art world, as long as he could stay in control. I bought into that. But do you think a crazy homeless guy is going to get laid immediately with a society babe in a one-night stand just because he takes a bath and puts on a clean suit? Sure he's a gentle and poetic soul, but just out of curiosity, what do you think his breath would smell like after a decade on the streets? Or do the homeless have a dental plan now? I think the script tended to get ludicrous when it threw him into the sexual assignation. A simple friendship with the artist's sister would have made much more sense.

Bottom line: It was not especially well reviewed, and did almost nothing at the box, but I liked it and admired the craftsmanship behind it as well. The movie is also beautifully photographed from both the technical and the artistic standpoint. There was some stunning composition, and beautiful use of color. I believe that if you liked They Might Be Giants or The Fisher King, this is your kind of movie.

Tuna's comments in yellow

If you are looking for a whodunit or suspense film, this isn't it, despite a plot line that has the main character helping to solve a murder. Director Kasi Lemmons in her second film again works with Samuel L. Jackson, and many of the same key off-screen personnel, and has created a film with wonderful visuals and atmosphere. Those who were expecting a murder mystery didn't much like it. 

Jackson is Romulus Ledbetter, aka Rom to those who know him and Caveman to the rest of New York. The former Julliard piano prodigy has become a severe paranoid schizophrenic, and lives in a cave in a New York park. Jackson has created a complete character, and Lemmons has succeeded in showing us the world through his eyes. A key to enjoying this films is accepting Rom as a hero, whether he is stable, and spouting thoughtful but biting social commentary, or ranting in a psychotic episode. Even when ranting, there is truth hiding in the delusions.  


Samuel L Jackson undresses in front of the camera, and virtually everything is exposed.

Ann Magnuson shows her breasts in an arty B&W sex scene with Jackson, in which he also shows his buns.

One of the two young models, either the murderer or the victim, is seen naked in a work of art.

 Rom discovers a frozen corpse in a tree outside his cave. His chief goal in life is to earn the respect of his daughter, who is on the NYPD. He sees solving the murder as a means to that end, and because he believes that the dead man asked for his help.

Rom is convinced that his nemesis is a fictitious Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, who lives atop the Chrysler building, and attacks people with malicious Y and Z rays. Early evidence, however, points to a famous photographer. Rom ends up in bed with the photographer's sister, played by Ann Magnuson. The sex scene, Jackson's first on film, is in B&W, and very stylized, but does reveal a breast. Magnuson also has a good see-through in the deleted scenes. Co-producer Jackson IS the film. His portrayal of a severely disturbed man is brilliant. He could have gone way over the top given the premise, but chose to give a subtle performance. Lemmons used several types of film stock, lens and light gels, and B&W inserts to show us the world through Rom's eyes. We are also given very arty glimpses of the "moth cherubs" living in Rom's skull.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1. Beautifully filmed, beautifully transferred.

  • Full-length commentary

  • several minutes of deleted scenes

This film succeeds for me in somewhat the same way as another favorite -- They Might Be Giants. Psychotic Jackson is a hero I can relate to. Think of it as a character driven drama, with some of the feel of an art film, and you will know whether you want to see it or not. As it is clearly not for everyone, C+ is the correct grade, but I, like Ebert, see it as 3 stars or better. Some films are judged by how well they live up to expectations, and I think that is what happened here. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 2/4, Maltin 2.5.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.2,  about consistent with the critical consensus.
  • With their dollars ... before the studio abandoned the film, it did $700,000 on 47 screens.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+ (Tuna) or a B- (Scoop), highlighted by a brilliant performance by Jackson as a man struggling to achieve some balance between his internal world and the real external world.

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