Though billed as an indie, Levity is more appropriately described as a low-budget feature made by Hollywood professionals and distributed through a major studio’s specialty division. It’s the kind of downsized, misguidedly sincere movie that is meant to transparently serve as its participants’ penance for the slop they make the rest of the year. Don’t be fooled by the promise that stars like Billy Bob Thornton and Morgan Freeman are going back to basics after recent appearances in pictures like Bandits and Dreamcatcher; Levity has enough leaden contrivances, lifeless dialogue, and unfathomable coincidences up its sleeve to make soporific, new-agey Hollywood pros like Jon Turteltaub (Phenomenon, Instinct) jealous.
Thornton stars as Manuel Jordan, a convict released from prison after serving 23 years for the murder of a teenage convenience store clerk and left to search for redemption in a snowy American city that looks suspiciously like it’s located somewhere in Canada. Describing via voice-over the steps necessary to carry out his reparations (all of which we recognize will be completed by film’s end), Manuel needs not only to admit his crime, feel appropriately remorseful, and make peace with God, but also repay in kind those he wronged as well as demonstrate that he would make a different choice when placed in the same situation as the misdeed that got him into trouble all those years ago.
Levity‘s slow-burning 101-mintue dilemma is how it will engineer the fulfillment of Manuel’s redemptive checklist and lead the audience to uplift in the process. Will he find forgiveness from a dubious pot-smoking preacher (Morgan Freeman, rasping his way to an all-time low) who out of the blue gives him a custodial job at his church? Will he make amends by intervening in the self-destructive life of a wayward teenager (Kirsten Dunst) who frequents the nightclub across the street? Will salvation come from his youth-group chitchats with a group of neighborhood teens whose basketball court was torn down to make way for a liquor store? Or will delivery from his guilt come from his hesitant relationship with Adele (Holly Hunter), the grown-up sister of his victim who happens to have a very troubled son looking for a stand-in father figure. “Over the years I’ve lowered my standards,” is how Adele acerbically explains her instant romantic interest in this man she knows nothing about, yet the line’s double meaning in regards to Hunter’s career path provides the film’s unintentional comic highlight.
Done up in long and frightening gray tresses that frame the barely-concealed boredom on his face, Thornton appears to be reprising his performance from The Man Who Wasn’t There, only without the constant cigarette smoking or the moving perceptions of apathy and self-awareness he brought to that memorable role. Levity also calls for an instant moratorium on films in which Thornton hops into bed with a woman from whom he keeps some deep, dark secret and the film’s divisive moment hinges on when and how she will discover the truth. The only worthwhile element found in this mess is that it comes nowhere near the moral catastrophe of Monster’s Ball; Manuel’s quest is so vague and his connections with the other characters so shapeless that his ethical transgressions are rendered more absurd than offensive.
For all its colorless religious gobbledygook and fragile notions of absolution that any multiplex audience would be more than happy to swallow, Levity is as impressively idiotic, if not quite as incomprehensible, as any befuddled studio-produced turkey to gain a perplexing popularity in the past several years. (Pay it Forward? K-PAX? Patch Adams?) Writer and first-time director Ed Solomon, whose writing credits include Men in Black and Charlie’s Angels, spent years working on this labor of love, yet in the end the film resembles nothing so much as a demo reel to prove to the suits he knows how to line ‘em up and knock ‘em down behind the camera as well as behind the typewriter. Hackdom, it appears, has no evident boundaries in the film world. Levity might be touring the art-house circuit, but Jon Turteltaub would be well-advised to watch his back.