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Little to love about 'Caveman's Valentine'

A plodding madman, a maddening plot


(CNN) -- Samuel L. Jackson is such a gifted actor that he usually can be counted on to lift mediocre material at least to a watchable level. That's not the case with "Caveman's Valentine."

This fact is all the more disappointing considering this film marks his reunion with actress-turned-director Kasi Lemmons. Lemmons made her feature film debut with "Eve's Bayou" (1997), which also starred Jackson in a collaboration that showed promise of things to come.

Based on a 1994 Edgar Award-winning novel by George Dawes Green (who also wrote the screenplay), "Caveman's Valentine" has an interesting -- although ultimately unworkable -- premise.

Jackson plays Romulus Ledbetter, aka The Caveman, a once promising Juilliard-trained musician and composer whose mental health has so deteriorated that he's delusional. He thinks he's being controlled by an unseen presence named Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant who lives in the New York's Chrysler Building.

Accident or murder?

Romulus lives his fitful life in a dark, empty cave in a Manhattan park. Out of the blue, this paranoid schizophrenic -- with well-dressed dreadlocks hanging halfway down his back -- finds the frozen body of a young man in a tree outside his cave. The police, whose ranks happen to include his estranged daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), think the stranger's death was an accident caused by extreme cold.

Romulus, somehow, knows better. He's convinced the handsome drifter was murdered by David Leppenraub (Colm Feore), a socially prominent art photographer who used the dead man as a model for his sadomasochistic photographs.

Crazy or cunning?

Against all odds -- and any degree of common sense, let alone logic -- Romulus finds himself using old contacts from his Julliard days to enter the rarefied world of Manhattan's upper echelons. This elite world is Leppenraub's home turf, but somehow Romulus roams freely inside its restricted boundaries, unrelenting in his pursuit of the killer.

When the plot requires, Romulus not only is cagey enough to sidestep the vicious man he's pursuing, he's also somehow sane enough to function at a normal level when he must. Even when he's stark raving mad at an art show, his ramblings are mistaken for intelligent musings about abstract art. Then, just as suddenly, he resumes his crazy rantings and ravings about voices in his head. At one point this filthy, homeless, crazy man even enjoys a sexual encounter with Leppenraub's uptown sister Moira (Ann Magnuson). Not even Jackson can pull that one off.

One part Perry Mason; one part Mad Hatter: They don't mix well.

The filmmakers want the viewers to accept an incomprehensible narrative that's laid out in bits and pieces by an incoherent protagonist who gets loonier and loonier with every frame.

Trailer for 'The Caveman's Valentine'

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Bent, twisted and mutilated, this offbeat thriller does have vivid visuals by cinematographer Amelia Vincent. Along with production designer Robin Standefer and editor Terilyn Shrophire, Vincent and Lemmons have created an unusual landscape to depict Romulus' damaged, fragmented mind. Images of flashing lights, angels, moths, and scenes from his past constantly flicker through his brain with blinding speed. It's all dazzling, but ultimately meaningless.

This film's plot isn't just an exercise in suspended disbelief, it's an entire workout program.

"Caveman's Valentine" opens Friday. Rated R. 105 minutes.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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