[Screen It]

(2003) (Billy Bob Thornton, Holly Hunter) (R)

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Drama: A recently released convict tries to contact his murder victim's sister in hopes of bringing closure to both him and her.
It's been 23 years since Manual Jordan (BILLY BOB THORNTON) murdered Abner Easley (LUKE ROBERTSON) during a holdup, and he's spent his entire adult life behind bars. Suddenly, his life sentence is commuted to time served and Manual finds himself a free man. Seeking self-redemption but not sure he can attain it, Manual seeks out Abner's now adult sister, Adele (HOLY HUNTER), hoping that in some way he can help himself by helping her.

Before he gets the chance to do that, he happens to answer a chance phone call from Miles Evans (MORGAN FREEMAN), a minister of sorts who runs a soup kitchen when not preaching to young partygoers before they head off to a nearby club. Miles is looking for his parking lot attendant who's disappeared, and offers Manual the job as well as a place to stay.

While upset with young partygoer Sofia Mellinger (KIRSTEN DUNST) for apparently wasting her privileged life, Manual sets out to make contact with Adele and her troubled son (GEOFFREY WIGDOR) who's named for his late uncle. With Adele unaware of Manual's true identity, he ends up befriending her, a development that's ripe for problems should she learn who he is.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
When it comes to movie titles, screenwriters usually want them to represent their work, and maybe be a clever play on words in some way. Studio marketers always want them to entice viewers in as few but as effective words as possible. "Levity" certainly does that when it comes to economy of words, but those enticed by the thought that they'll be seeing a giddy or whimsical work are apt to be disappointed.

It's not clear what the intentions of writer/director Ed Solomon (making his directing debut after penning "Men in Black" and those "Bill & Ted" movies) and/or some studio person were in choosing the title - be it symbolic, ironic or whatever - but this somber tale of seeking redemption clearly belies its moniker.

It's also not a great or even really a good movie. Yet, there was something about it that engaged me, at least to some degree and on some level. Perhaps it was the cast, or maybe just the potential that's never fulfilled. Whatever the case, I wanted it to work and thus kept giving it a chance to do just that, even in the face of various problems and inconsistencies that kept popping up.

In the film, the perfectly cast Billy Bob Thornton ("Monster's Ball," "Bandits") plays a murderer who's suddenly released from prison - for no real reason beyond the movie needing it to happen to get started - after spending his entire adult life there. He then sets out to get redemption for the act he committed long ago by seeking out the victim's adult sister, played by Holly Hunter ("Moonlight Mile," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"").

He also gets involved with an inner-city mission sort of preacher -- Morgan Freeman ("Dreamcatcher," "The Sum of All Fears") - and tries to show an apparently privileged girl -- Kirsten Dunst ("Spider-Man," "Get Over It") - the error of her ways and that she's throwing her life away via her hard-partying behavior. As one can see, there are possibilities in that busy framework of material, and some of it does work.

Yet, various improbabilities and moments of implausibility - ranging from that initial prison release to the reasons, or lack thereof, behind certain events and unlikely character behavior and actions - repeatedly undermine the effort. In short, while there may be plenty of dots on the page, so to speak, they don't all connect nor do so in a credible or realistic fashion when they do.

The best part of the film deals with Thornton's character interacting with Hunter's. With long gray locks, his usual tentative demeanor, and forlorn, hangdog expression, the actor and his goal engage the viewer, particularly when he has occasional encounters with his long-deceased victim played by Luke Robertson (making his feature debut).

Since Hunter's character doesn't realize she's befriended her brother's killer, it's a foregone conclusion that the revelation will somehow and eventually occur. The filmmakers don't imbue that with as much dread or pending racecar crash anticipation as one might expect, but their relationship is intriguing and Hunter is as striking and engaging as ever.

Equally compelling but less successful is the material regarding Freeman's character. When not running a soup kitchen, he serves as a preacher of sorts to young people who visit his basement "chapel" before heading off to a nearby club to get plastered. Why they do so is never explained - especially since they're obviously not forced to stay - and Freeman inconsistently applies a gravely voice to his character.

That's presumably done to make him come off as more rough around the edges and mysterious, but something about the character and related plot - including an odd visit by some inconsistent and apparently blind and/or dumb FBI agents - feels artificial and contrived.

Then there's the antagonistic turned non-romantic friendship between the protagonist and Dunst's apparently spoiled, rich kid character. She might be present to disprove the grass is always greener theory or simply to add another troubled soul into the mix. Dunst is good, like Hunter, but her subplot also has its share of odd and/or unbelievable moments (including a visit to her mother's mansion that's a bit too obvious and symbolic in nature to make it as effective as intended).

With Thornton's character twice repeating the five stages of redemption, it's not hard to see where the film's going or how the fifth step will play out. Even so, this compelling and occasionally engaging film has just enough going for it, including a tangible essence of something worthwhile, to compensate, at least partially, for its various problems. With a title that doesn't befit the subject matter or tone, "Levity" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 28, 2003 / Posted April 25, 2003

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