"Levity" is about as well-meaning as a movie can get, but that's never enough to ensure it comes alive on the screen, which is sadly the case here. A successful Hollywood screenwriter, Ed Solomon, has made his directorial debut with a story inspired by his encounter with a teenage killer he met as a student volunteer with the UCLA Prison Coalition.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Manual Jordan, who after 20 years is being paroled against his wishes. Twenty-three years earlier he shot and killed a 16-year-old convenience store clerk during a holdup. Manual does not believe in God, does not believe in the possibility of redemption for himself and long ago adjusted to enduring the incarceration he believes he richly deserves.
Thrust back into society, he gravitates to his old inner-city neighborhood and by chance winds up a custodian at a community center run by Morgan Freeman's Miles Evans, a resilient, streetwise pastor who assures him he's asking him "not to believe but to clean." Across the alley is a disco frequented by Sofia (Kirsten Dunst), a heavy-duty substance abuser. Living nearby is Adele (Holly Hunter), the sister of Manual's long-ago victim, to whom he is drawn both in a desire to do penance and because she's an attractive woman, a single mother with a trouble-prone teenage son.
Manual's craving for redemption in spite of himself is a worthy premise, and Solomon has certainly lined up a stellar cast to explore it. But Solomon, who has "Men in Black" and "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" among his credits, hasn't, at least at this stage, developed the ability to tell a story in which Manual's odyssey is meant to be essentially mystical and the workings of the human heart and mind are seen as enigmatic.
Solomon's conventional writing and directing style are all wrong for his attempt to evoke an aura of ambiguity; he might have better succeeded if he had approached the project as a standard movie requiring traditionally written, three-dimensional characters. Solomon's plotting is solid, but he has not filled in his outline satisfactorily. Sometimes it really is best to leave the elliptical, the allegorical and the symbolic to the likes of Ingmar Bergman.
The result is a screen full of characters who are, with the exception of Manual, too sketchily drawn to seem real and therefore involving despite the well-known abilities of the cast. Not surprisingly, Hunter comes through with a crisp performance, but why is Adele, who is chic, articulate and of obviously superior intelligence, stuck in a tastefully decorated apartment that happens to be in one of the bleakest blocks of the city? There is just no sense of authenticity in the relationship of the characters to the environment in which Solomon has placed them.
The film's title refers to the gift that Manual, given his history, sorely lacks. There is less reason for it to be largely absent from this glum movie as well.
MPAA rating: R for language.
Times guidelines: Somber adult themes.
Billy Bob Thornton ... Manual Jordan
Morgan Freeman ... Miles Evans
Holly Hunter ... Adele Easley
Kirsten Dunst ... Sofia Mellinger
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Writer-director Ed Solomon. Producers Richard N. Gladstein, Adam J. Merims, Ed Solomon. Executive producers Morgan Freeman, Lori McCreary, Fred Schepisi, Andrew Spaulding, James Burke, Doug Mankoff. Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Editor Pietro Scalia. Music Mark Oliver Everett. Costumes Marie-Sylvie Deveau. Production designer François Séguin. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
At selected theaters.