In "Levity," Billy Bob Thornton Plays a Killer on a Preposterous Path to Forgiveness
by Scott Foundas
What a preposterous, overwrought mess of a movie this is, so failing to benefit from the sage advice of its own title, so uncertain of where it's going, how to get there or what to do if/when it finally arrives. Ed Solomon's "Levity," the opening-night film at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, is a collection of fragmented scenes and ideas in search of a better script and a director less star-struck about his first behind-the-camera outing. This is one of those movies so reliant upon a chain of coincidences and chance encounters, so intent on tying up every one of its loose ends, that we're supposed to come away from it marveling at the vagaries of fate and this big, neat master plan that destiny has in store for us. But the result is exactly the opposite: "Levity" seems to take place in a vacuum, about as far away from the world of real people and real problems as you can get. Which is something of a fatal flaw in a movie that would have us pity a convicted killer.
That killer is Manuel Jordan, and he's played by Billy Bob Thornton with a mop-gray wig and solemn, tortoise-like mannerisms that suggest a sort-of Karl Childers-lite. When Jordan was a teenager, he shot and killed the night clerk of a local liquor store during a botched robbery attempt. Now a free man after 20 years in prison, he seeks forgiveness from the adult sister (Holly Hunter) of his victim, believing -- according to a personal mantra that is repeated ad infinitum in Thornton's voice-over narration -- that this will be the first step on a path to forgiveness from God.
Of course, a hitch develops, which is that Jordan finds himself falling in love with Adele (Hunter) who, in a wonderful bit of screenwriting contrivance, fails to recognize Jordan and doesn't even ask his name until their second or third meeting (at which point, a pseudonym is conveniently substituted). A movie about a woman falling in love with the man who killed her brother could be an interesting thing, but that movie is never given a chance to materialize. For Solomon is much more interested in making a movie about the gimmick of Jordan's dual identity, a "Mrs. Doubtfire" romp in which maybe ... just maybe ... this killer-with-a-heart-of-gold can erase the memory of past injustice via a clever charade.
If only the outrageous improbabilities ended there. But "Levity" lays it on thick. It happens that another step in Jordan's forgiveness mantra necessitates him saving somebody who's in the same position he was once in, to stop him from trekking down the same wayward path. And so, we're subjected to a series of unbearably lugubrious machinations by which Adele's would-be-gangsta son plots revenge against the punks who shot (and nearly killed) him, while -- because Levity doesn't yet have enough on its plate ... Jordan must also intervene in the life of a wayward raver girl (Kirsten Dunst) who seems bent on drinking and drugging herself to death. (The average episode of "Touched by an Angel" provides fewer opportunities for salvation.) Somehow, Morgan Freeman ends up in the mix too, mugging it up as a fiery pastor with a fiery past, as though he might be a good-luck charm, post-"Shawshank Redemption", for any filmmaker seeking to essay the difficulties by which a longtime prison inmate attempts to reenter society.
"Levity" is a very Hollywood movie in indie clothing, and it moves to Hollywood rhythms. Jordan and Adele have to fall in love, and Jordan has to end up saving everyone in sight, because the only other scenario the movie could imagine given these plot elements is a vigilante revenge thriller a la "Death Wish" or "Eye for an Eye." Beyond which, we're forced to accept Jordan as an inherently good person who made one bad decision a long time ago (and deserves to be forgiven for it), because Solomon's screenplay is like a constrictive vice that won't allow any other possible interpretation to pass through. Most 1940s B-westerns weren't this black-and-white.
Editor's note: Scott Foundas reviewed the film at Sundance 2003; it's in