Levity (review)

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Deliver Us from Earnestness

lev•i•ty: excessive or unseemly frivolity.

No, no, no. Not here. Maybe the title is meant to imply something about the incredible lightness of forgiveness or redemption or the washing clean of your soul of bad things. That’s what very earnest movies about gentle ex-cons are usually about, aren’t they? Excessiveness or unseemliness simply won’t do here — frivolity is the enemy of earnestness, and surely there is nothing frivolous and everything earnest about redemption.

One hates to knock such a well-intentioned film as Levity, particularly when it’s such a hard-won project for writer/ director/ producer Ed Solomon, who toiled as a screenwriter on such excessive frivolities as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Men in Black and makes his debut behind the camera here. But Levity shuffles along like a bag lady who somehow exudes a sense of regality even though she’s pushing all her belongings in a cart down the sidewalk, with nowhere to go but clinging to a sense of purpose nevertheless. The bag-lady image springs to mind so readily probably because Billy Bob Thornton (Bandits, A Simple Plan) — as Manual, the gentle ex-con — shuffles along aimlessly like a hopelessly pathetic street person, his long, stringy hair suggesting a lack of upkeep, his adriftness suggesting, perhaps, a confusion we’re meant to see as noble and right — right for a man in his situation, that is. Paroled unexpectedly from prison after serving more than 21 years for murder, Manual is cast out into the wide world, where masses of people zip through the city and through their lives while Manual stares, sad and bewildered, after them.

Yes, creating a nobility of despair is, it seems, Solomon’s aim, his film moving slowly and solemnly and with a serious narration lamenting the nonexistence of a god with the capacity to redeem Manual. He tries himself, of course, the redemption thing — though he’s dragged into it by sheer circumstance, Manual comes to work with a self-styled preacher, Miles Evans, who forces nightclubbing kids to listen to him rant in exchange for the use his empty lot for protected parking in this rough section of town. (Miles is Morgan Freeman [Bruce Almighty, Dreamcatcher], who carries with him his own sense of worn-down regality, though it’s rarely been put to such urgent and ultimately pointless use before.) The hedonistic clubbers call Manual “God Boy”; Miles tells Manual “I don’t need you to believe — I just need you to clean” his ad-hoc community center, something about cleanliness being next to godliness, maybe; “I was Righteous,” Manual says, revealing the code name he used when he and his pals robbed that convenience store and committed murder, which is way past the point where you’ve begun rolling your eyes at the hand-wringing over God and how unironic and unforgiving and nonexistent he is.

It’s all very portentous and symbolic and Meaningful, and everyone’s so very aware of what an Important Film this is meant to be. Even the trying-to-be-sparky Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man, The Cat’s Meow), as one of the druggy clubbers, a poor little rich girl who can more than hold her own against the crude homies who hang in Miles’s place. Even the usually sprightly Holly Hunter (Moonlight Mile, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), as the sister of Manual’s victim, whom he befriends in a misguided attempt at self-redemption. They aim for a feeling of spunk hiding deep pain, as they’ve both pulled off before, but here it’s as if they’ve been told not to let the energy rise above a 2. No levity — there must be no lightness in this dark.

Never has redemption been, honestly, so dull, a private thing turned public and with, frankly, not much to say to those of us eavesdropping but with every intention of making us feel like we’re made privy to something momentous. This is the kind of film in which characters come to a crossroads and say things like “So what happens now?” What happens is that after telling us that there’s no light at the end of this tunnel, it blinds us with its neat, pat, and pretty darn convenient conclusion.

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