Film Reviews: Wednesday, June 5, 2003
Levity\r\nStarring Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, and Kirsten Dunst. Written and directed by Ed Solomon. Rated R.
Low Self-Redeem

Billy Bob Thornton seeks forgiveness (or something) in the pointless Levity.


The first thing most people will notice about Levity is that it actually has about as much levity as a tax seminar. The strangest thing about it, though, is that the movie marks the directorial debut of Ed Solomon, a screenwriter for The In-Laws, Charlie’s Angels, Men in Black, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. You can hardly fault a guy with that kind of résumé for wanting to do a project with a bit more heft and some dark undertones. Levity, though, is relentlessly and perversely unentertaining, as if the filmmaker were so determined to banish the stoners, secret agents, and karate-kicking hot chicks from his consciousness that he forgot to ask himself what kind of characters he did want in this story.

The film stars Billy Bob Thornton as Manual Jordan, who has just been released from prison after 23 years for killing a store clerk in a hold-up. A guy named Miles (Morgan Freeman, sounding like he’s been gargling with industrial solvent) gives him a job working as a custodian at a community shelter in return for room and board. Not satisfied with having done his time, Manual believes himself beyond redemption. Still, he seeks it anyway by, among other things, trying to save Sofia (Kirsten Dunst), a rich kid whom he sees getting smashed on a nightly basis at the club next door to the shelter.

One major problem is that we’ve seen Billy Bob Thornton do all this before. Manual’s passive, quiet desperation is the same quality that Thornton’s Ed Crane had in The Man Who Wasn’t There, a movie that explored the character much more deeply. Like his Hank Grotowski in Monster’s Ball, Manual is also hiding a secret from the woman he loves — he tries to make amends to Adele (Holly Hunter), the sister of the man he killed, without divulging his identity to her, and he winds up falling for her.

Thornton’s film career itself has been quite enigmatic. The guy went from unknown to Oscar nominee, in 1996 for Sling Blade. Since then, he has bounced from indie to Hollywood movies and neophyte filmmakers to established directors, but his track record remains extremely hit-or-miss. He smartly underplayed his roles in crappy films such as Armageddon and Waking Up in Reno, which encouraged most actors to ham it up, and he has marked time in quirkier, low-level films such as Pushing Tin and Bandits. The two movies mentioned above were widely esteemed, but nothing he has done has come close to matching his greatest performance, in 1998’s A Simple Plan. He’s never seemed to find a comfortable place where he might be able to flourish and recapture the public and critical imagination like we all know he’s capable of doing. Maybe his stint in the Coen brothers’ upcoming film will give us a clue.

Even if the main character here weren’t such a retread of his earlier parts, Thornton still couldn’t rescue this movie from all its failings. Solomon fills his script with platitudinous dialogue that doesn’t scratch the surface of the guilt and pain that he’s trying so hard to evoke. It doesn’t sound good, either. (Miles: “Maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe God grades on a curve.” Manual: “It doesn’t matter either way.”) For all the time the four major characters are on screen, we gain little understanding or even basic information about them, which wastes an A-list cast. What makes Manual confide in Sofia about his past? How does he steer her onto the right path? Why is Adele drawn to him? How did Miles, who’s harboring a secret of his own, end up where he is? Solomon’s not telling us. At the end, when Manual leaves the community shelter in Sophia’s charge, you just feel like throwing up your hands at the movie’s failure to make sense.

That is, if you have the energy. The whole movie transpires at a sluggish pace. The scenes go on without ever coming to a point. Solomon sets the film in a wintry non-wonderland, full of empty rooms and deserted snowy streets, and the sparse visuals (along with an equally sparse guitar score by the eels’ frontman Mark Oliver Everett) are supposed to convince us that important spiritual matters are being discussed. If this movie were overly dense or abstruse, it’d at least be an ambitious failure. Levity, however, is just as empty of philosophical substance as it is of entertainment value. If you’re going to watch Morgan Freeman mop floors and talk about God, you’d be much better off going to see Bruce Almighty.

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