on April 04, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
“Levity,” according to Webster's, means relative lightness, buoyancy, as opposed to gravity; the lack of gravity and earnestness in deportment or character, trifling gayety, frivolity, sportiveness, vanity; lack of steadiness or constancy, disposition to change, fickleness, volatility. It's an ironic title for a film that deals with such weighty subject matter: the desperate search for redemption when none seems possible. Levity is the goal of a character who has experienced none.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as Manual Jordan, a man who has spent the last two decades in prison for the murder of a convenience store clerk during an attempted robbery. Paroled against his will -- he feels he doesn't deserve forgiveness -- and with nowhere else to go, he returns to the neighborhood where he committed the crime and inadvertently falls into the employ of Miles (Morgan Freeman), an enigmatic pastor who operates a community house across the street from a rave, charging clubbers a 15-minute sermon in exchange for access to his parking lot. There Manual also befriends Sofia (Kirsten Dunst), a seemingly spoiled rich girl who is spiraling into self-destructiveness. And, meanwhile, he tentatively enters into a relationship with Adele (Holly Hunter), the sister of the boy he killed. Unable to tell her who he really is, he is also unable to attain the forgiveness he so desperately desires.

But Manual isn't the only one who seeks redemption. The theme permeates the film throughout, from the pastor who disappears mysteriously for days at a time to the mother who names her teenaged son after her dead brother, hoping to do right by him. “No use going to jail,” Miles says, believing that it deprives society of an otherwise good man.

The film also deals seriously with what it means to kill another person. Manual is crippled by guilt, yet the young men he counsels at the community house boast about their associates' escapades. Four or six murders mean little more than bragging rights to them.

Although he is unable to take back what he did 22 years ago, Manual is ultimately able to prevent the same thing from happening to another. While not a storybook ending, he is finally free, has gained levity.

Thornton's performance is humorless and thus humorous. Indifferent to the fun being made at his expense by the aggressive youths with whom he comes into contact, he doggedly pushes forward in his quest to protect them from his own fate. Yet the other characters respond to him: Miles hires him on despite his checkered past; Sofia gently teases him; and Adele invites him into her home without even knowing his name.

Freeman, also an executive producer on the film, adopts a deep, gruff voice, an irreverence for God and a sense of humor that provides an effective counterpoint to Thornton's wet blanket. And Dunst once again proves she has acting chops beyond “Spider-Man's” Mary Jane, here alternately drunk, silly, out of control; smart-mouthed and unintimidated; nervous and scared.

Director Ed Solomon shows the urban environment as it is: snowy, dirty. In a scene in which Manual stands on a building rooftop, breaking off chunks of snow and letting them fall to splat on the sidewalk below, it's clear that the setting is a reflection of his inner milieu -- a visual metaphor necessary as he reveals so little of himself outwardly. The addition of a haunting apparition of the boy he killed further reveal his inner turmoil.

In stark contrast are the flashbacks of the event that imprisoned him. Flashes of images - -just as he remembers it -- are filmed in desaturated tones and quickly cut. The camera shoots from Manual's point of view: We see what he saw when he committed the crime, the look on the boy's face, “like he knew something I didn't,” and his own reflection at the moment that changed his life.

A serious examination of the nature of forgiveness, “Levity” has been criticized by some as plodding. It is necessarily so: Redemption doesn't happen overnight. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter and Kirsten Dunst. Directed and written by Ed Solomon. Produced by Richard Gladstein and Adam Merins. A Sony Classics release. Drama. Rated R for language. Running time: 100 min

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