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Mind Over Pop Culture: The Caveman's Valentine

I finally watched the worst movie yet for this blog, The Caveman’s Valentine. I’ve watched movies I thought would be terrible but were better than anticipated (A Beautiful Mind), and movies that I thought would be good but were just terrible (Girl Interrupted), but wow. This just takes the cake.

The Caveman’s Valentine is an indie movie from 2001 (I thought it was from the ‘90s) that stars Samuel L. Jackson as Romulus Ledbetter, a former Julliard student who dropped out when his (presumed) schizophrenia symptoms were too much to deal with. Years later, and now living in a cave, Romulus investigates the death of a fellow homeless man, Scotty, who is left outside of his cave in a tree. The investigation takes him to the height of the Manhattan art scene, to a photographer named David Leppenraub, who used Scotty as a model for his famous tortured angel photos.

As you can see from the convoluted plot, this movie is a mess on a lot of levels. It really wants to be deep, like it has something valuable to say about the plight of homeless people in America and how it contrasts with the ultra-rich who live in the same city. It also believes that it something important to say about mental health and the treatment of those with mental health conditions in America. It doesn’t. It really, actually doesn’t. Romulus is crazy, period. The best guess I can make for a diagnosis is paranoid schizophrenia (which most sources about the movie cite), but at no time does that become clear. He has every single possible symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. He hears voices, has hallucinations and believes a man named Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant is trying to control him from the Chrysler Building. He rants when the movie needs him to and is perfectly lucid at other times. Even more infuriatingly, he’s seems to be in control of his paranoia when the movie needs him to be. He can be calm and lucid when he’s talking to people at a party, but when he’s on the street, he can only rant. He can play complicated piano pieces with no problem, but has a hard time opening doors at one point. It’s so stereotypical it hurts. (Though, Samuel L. Jackson commits to the ridiculousness of it all, and within in the limitations of the character, gives a fine performance.)

What’s not helping the situation is that self-righteous feeling that many ‘90s “issue” movies have. Every supporting character knows that they are doing something good. Anthony Michael Hall plays the arrogant rich guy who Romulus asks to borrow a pencil from and eventually befriends. He owns a condo where everything is from the 1930s, because “I’m a bankruptcy lawyer, and the 1930s were a boom time for us.” He congratulates himself for talking to Romulus on the street, because what rich person does that? David Leppenraub, the photographer, has a horrible artistic dinner party with his art friends, and they complement Romulus for “understanding pain” without any irony. His sister has sex with the piano player because she likes to “treat the models.” The lack of self-awareness is painful. It even extends to Romulus’ family, who has no sympathy for him. His daughter, who is a cop, refuses to even consider that the young man who froze to death outside of Romulus’ cave was murdered, because “everyone knew he was going to freeze to death.” When faced with actual evidence, she won’t listen because her father was a bad father to her. At one point, the two have a conversation in a car, and when he brings up the murder, she tells him that, for one second, “it was like talking to my dad.” As far as I can tell, he’s been sick her whole life so the conversation they had been having before that moment would have been the “normal” conversation (but then, he was conveniently lucid then, with perfect memories of her childhood).

This movie is so frustrating. It’s a great time capsule for all of the horrible ways mental health is portrayed in pop culture, and it’s a fabulous reminder that the needle has moved. Even A Beautiful Mind, a problematic movie in its own right, is a step in a much better direction (and released the same year). This movie had a chance to discuss the lack of access to care for people with mental health conditions, the high rate of homelessness that people with mental health conditions face, or even the lack of discussion of mental health conditions in minority populations. Instead, the movie relied on stereotypes to discuss intrigue in the upper class white population in Manhattan, something Law and Order had covered for over 20 years by this point. I would love to use what could have been as my reason for disliking this movie, but it’s bad enough to stand all on its own.

Don’t watch it, unless you miss the ‘90s (and if you do, watch 10 Things I Hate About You). Next week, we’ll look at A Dangerous Method, and see how pop culture treats Freud and Jung.

Have you seen The Caveman’s Valentine? Am I overreacting? What did you think?

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