Director David Scheckman’s low-budget film is a stage-play delight that depending on inclination qualifies either as an intriguing parlor trick or an incandescent fantasy, or a shrewd combination. From a screenplay by the late science fiction writer Jerome Bixby, it’s an opinionated 90-minute mediation on mortality, spirituality and human purpose.
College professor John Oldman (David Lee Jones) gathers a half-dozen of his intellectual colleagues and friends at his mountain cabin to bid them farewell. After 10 years, he’s suddenly decided it’s time to move on; “itchy feet,” he tells them. When one of his guests, an anthropologist Dan (Tony Todd, in an anchoring performance), begins to press him on his departure, the pensive John reluctantly decides to outline his “true” story. He is, he says, a Cro-Magnon man born in the Paleolithic period, some 14,000 years ago. Since he doesn’t age, he’s compelled to move on every decade to avoid arousing suspicion. At different times in history he’s been a Sumerian; studied with the Buddha; sailed with Columbus; befriended Van Gogh.
Baffled, bewildered and finally bemused, his dismissive colleagues pepper him with questions to keep intact their version of the known and the rational. John parries their skepticism with impregnable answers in remarkable detail. But when a psychiatrist joins the mix, bemusement turns to rage. Is John using decades worth of reading to pull off the ultimate hoax, spinning “the yarn of the century” in bad taste, at least among intellectuals? Is he mad?
The narrative is almost completely devoid of conventional cinematic action, dedicated instead to wordplay. It’s fine display of the havoc caused by someone furnishing persuasively alternative explanations to acknowledged beliefs, particularly among self-satisfied experts. Jones’ John is spotlessly soft-spoken and sincere, which frightens his academic friends all the more. It is they who gradually lose their cool. The entirety casts a fascinating spell that even an untidy ending can’t spoil.