On the basis of the two pictures she's made so far, "Eve's Bayou" in 1997 and the new "The Caveman's Valentine," Kasi Lemmons has proved herself to be one of those maddening directors who has a spark of something -- a sharp visual sense, a knack for juicy storytelling. But those fine qualities don't braid together as firmly as they should.
"Eve's Bayou," which Lemmons both wrote and directed, tells the story of a prosperous Louisiana black family's experience of incest, addressing the way different parties' perceptions of a single event can often become tangled. Yet the picture ends with a maddening, unsatisfying ambiguity: Its final suggestion is that anyone who thinks he or she has been abused has been abused, a conclusion that doesn't mesh with the finer, more delicately shaded view that the movie hints at. In the end, Lemmons' brightly toned melodrama is all wrong for the grave, off-the-grain conclusion of "Eve's Bayou."
"The Caveman's Valentine," adapted for the screen by George Dawes Green from his 1994 novel, is a very different movie from "Eve's Bayou," and in some ways it's just as frustrating. But at least Lemmons' technique feels more at home tucked around this material, a thriller with plenty of psychological, and even some mystical, elements thrown in.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Romulus Ledbetter, a paranoid schizophrenic and Juilliard-trained pianist who now lives in a cave in a New York City park. When a young man is found frozen to death outside his lair, Romulus takes it upon himself to find the person whom he suspects of killing the boy, partly out of a sense of justice and partly in the hopes that he can redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter, Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), a New York City cop.
Romulus is one of those troubled souls who can often come off as being quite sensible, and as he circles around two people he believes are connected with the murder, hotshot photographer David Leppenraub (Colm Feore) and his sister Moira (Ann Magnuson, in a typically wry and witty performance), he turns out to be a fairly capable investigator. But he still can't get around his central block: A brilliantly gifted pianist, he finds it almost impossible to play, believing that his every move is watched and controlled by an unseen being whom he refers to as Stuyvesant, who lives in the tower of Manhattan's Chrysler Building.
"The Caveman's Valentine" doesn't hang together tightly enough as a thriller, and it isn't stirring enough as a psychological portrait of a damaged person. It hovers somewhere in that never-never land of movies that try to do too much and don't quite live up to any of their ambitions. Lemmons has a flair for composition; working with cinematographer Amelia Vincent, who also shot the lovely-looking "Eve's Bayou," she clearly knows where to put the camera to get the most out of the story's drama.
But at times she gets too carried away with her own visions, especially in the sequences that are supposed to clue us in to what's going on in Romulus' head. When he's in the throes of an episode, we're shown a hazy dream-world troupe of gorgeously buff and, except for the giant moth wings attached to their backs, gloriously naked black men, all writhing or dancing or playing instruments. (If this is psychosis, sign me up.) It's a beautiful image, but it feels forced, even after Romulus explains that these winged creatures are the "moth seraphs of divinity and vengeance." It's never explained why these particular anxieties should appear to Romulus as gorgeous naked men: The images have clearly homoerotic undertones that just add another vague, barely explored layer to the movie's already cluttered psychojumble.
Even so, Lemmons does so many things right in "The Caveman's Valentine." Jackson infuses Romulus with so much noble, crazy dignity that you feel more respect for him than pity. His scenes with Magnuson, in particular, have an appealing, prickly quality.
It's especially interesting that, given the way interracial relationships in the movies are still such a hot point, there's a scene in "The Caveman's Valentine" in which Romulus and Moira make love, perhaps nervously but not awkwardly. You can't help wondering if Lemmons isn't making a bit of a joke, playing with the idea that white women are out to steal all the good men from the black community. After all, what can you say about an artsy, sophisticated, well-off white woman who "steals" a paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave and can't hold down a job? (Granted, there's no getting around the fact that he is still Samuel L. Jackson.)
Lemmons doesn't hammer on the point, nor does she let it pass without comment. Romulus' estranged wife, Sheila (played by Tamara Tunie), frequently appears to him as a kind of personal Greek chorus, explaining his actions to him when he's bewildered by them, or warning him of impending danger. After he sleeps with Moira, she cracks, "Some girls will fuck any kind of black man." The line is funny on its own, and it also serves as a kind of release valve, an acknowledgment that the movie has sidled pretty close to a hot issue but isn't going to make it a central focus.
That kind of sharp offhandedness is valuable in a filmmaker, and it surfaces enough in "The Caveman's Valentine" to make you wonder if Lemmons doesn't have a truly terrific movie in her yet. This one has its moments of filmic bravado: The sight of Romulus, dreadlocks flying as he pounds away at a glossy vintage Bösendorfer like Cecil Taylor's long-lost twin, is like a visual tribute to the unhinged quality that often flies close by genius's side. If you can show that on film without spelling it out too broadly -- without "Shine"-ifying it, that is -- you've got to be doing something right. Lemmons has a good eye. Now it's just a matter of perfecting her pitch.