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Future film students will be able to write thick dissertations on Samuel L. Jackson’s silver-screen hairstyles, combing meaning from Pulp Fiction’s Jheri curl, the misguided dye job in The Negotiator and the gleaming bald pate flashed in Shaft. The irony’s rich: The badass actor whose specialty is short-fused, hypermacho types (i.e., Angry Black Men) spends as much time in the hairdresser’s chair as any rising starlet. The results can be distracting, but often underscore the fact that Jackson’s greatest talent may be the trick of wrestling character out of caricature. In The Caveman’s Valentine, the actor sports a thick mane of dreads that hang well below his shoulders, signifying unkempt, unconventional beauty. The film mainly uses the hairdo, however, to stress a different cliché altogether — the braid of madness and freedom.

At its thematic core, Caveman, directed by Kasi Lemmons and adapted for the screen by George Dawes Green from his 1994 novel, is an exploration of the natures of brilliance and insanity, persecution and paranoia, and how they all connect — or cause disconnect. Given that the film has a homeless, once-promising black man as the locus for these issues, we’re primed for a complex character study. But a ridiculous murder mystery is the crux of the screenplay, and every time we get close to the interior workings of Jackson’s Romulus, a failed piano prodigy, we’re yanked back into anemic plot machinations to figure out whodunit. The problem is, we’re never given a reason to care.

Romulus lives in a cave in a city park where he’s something of a legend and father figure to other disenfranchised folk. He’s a volatile creature shrouded in myth and misinformation; to those who pay attention, it’s apparent that he’s suffered a spectacular fall from grace. When the body of a young hustler turns up in a tree right outside Romulus’ cave, the erstwhile musician finds himself ensnared in an investigation in which he’s the only one convinced that a murder has taken place; the cops — who include his estranged daughter, Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis) — think the kid simply froze to death. Soon, Romulus, cashing in the remnants of his straight-world cred, is crashing yuppie cocktail parties and art-world soirees in order to gather clues. In those rarefied environs, his babbled observations are interpreted as deep insights, a ploy that’s a too-easy send-up of vapid artists. Stripped of convention and armed with the clarity that only the Movieland insane possess, Romulus sees more clearly than the “sane” folks around him, most of whom are dolts. They’re all either smitten with him or fearful of his truth-saying. Mainly, though, they’re guided more by the filmmakers’ need for expedient plot navigation than by intelligence or common sense.

Romulus is a difficult character to pull off, and the task defeats Jackson. A stitch of affectation and transparent mannerisms, he walks with quick, staccato steps, head bent and arms swinging, alternating between angry, bug-eyed outbursts and cloying, cute line readings meant to charm and ingratiate, but that simply grate. But if Jackson can’t find his character, Lemmons can’t find her center, either. She’s hamstrung by Green’s screenplay, which makes a typical Hollywood fetish of homelessness and mental illness while shortchanging the issues of class, race and political power that flare throughout the script. Romulus’ anger at forces both real and imagined that conspire against him is reduced to backdrop for a subpar, logic-deficient thriller.

Lemmons’ efforts to put us inside her protagonist’s head come off as plodding, borderline kitsch: a love scene filmed in artsy black-and-white close-up, sans faces; the seraphs that flutter through Romulus’ mind illustrated by buff black men with wings strapped onto their backs. It’s a relief to have a film with a black lead in which the filmmaker is actually interested in the vocabulary of filmmaking, without a hip-hop score or dialogue peppered with awight, yo. It’s exasperating, though, that the script turns a black man’s psychological and spiritual crises into window-dressing on a third-rate thriller. And it’s especially disappointing that Lemmons, who in Eve’s Bayou gave us insightful glimpses into the emotional world of black adults, has lost her balance, elevating formula over revelation.

THE CAVEMAN’S VALENTINE | Directed by KASI LEMMONS | Written by GEORGE DAWES GREEN, from his novel | Produced by DANNY DeVITO, MICHAEL SHAMBERG, STACEY SHER, ELIE SAMAHA and ANDREW STEVENS | Released by Universal Focus | At selected theaters

LA Weekly