Dir: Ed Solomon. US. 2003. 100mins.

From its portentous title to its lofty themes, Levity reeks of a self-importance which is rarely justified. The ambitious directorial debut of Ed Solomon, the screenwriter of Men In Black and the two Bill And Ted films, was the opening night film of the Sundance Film Festival last week and was even received in that forgiving context with the scepticism it warrants. Its star-studded cast will guarantee notice, but its theatrical appeal will be narrow - especially outside the US - and it will pass to the video shelves with little fuss.

Solomon is a talented writer and in Levity there are glimpses of humanity and humour which intimate at his lively way with words. But humour is in short supply here; Solomon decided instead that Levity be one of those glum films addressing 'serious' issues such as atonement and redemption, and as such it takes itself very seriously.

The embodiment of Solomon's gloom is the king of screen gloom himself Billy Bob Thornton, playing a man who has served 23 years in prison for the murder of a store-clerk. The character Manual Jordan is another variation on Thornton's anguished working-class persona as witnessed in Monster's Ball, The Man Who Wasn't There and A Simple Plan. With his changelessly blank visage and lifeless voice, Thornton grunts through the film submerged in remorse for his deed. It's a familiar turn from the actor which wears thin on this occasion, not just because audiences have seen it before but because the character itself is not a convincing one.

Jordan carries the picture of his victim, Abner Easley (Luke Robertson), around with him, and in fact sees his image wherever he goes. When, much to his chagrin, he is freed from prison, he heads straight for the unnamed city where his victim's sister Adele Easley (Holly Hunter) still lives.

Befuddled at city life, Jordan falls in with a maverick pastor Miles Evans (Freeman) at a community centre, who hires him to ensure that kids arriving at a nearby nightclub come to listen to him preaching for 20 minutes in return for free parking. Jordan becomes intrigued by one such kid - Sofia Mellinger (Dunst), the daughter of an old rock star who often passes out at the club from drunkenness and drug abuse.

As the film goes on, Jordan befriends Adele, who is a single mother with a troubled son also called Abner (Geoffrey Wigdor). Certain that he cannot be redeemed for his crime to Adele and unable to reveal his true identity as her brother's murderer, he nevertheless begins to intervene in Abner's life of gangland violence, while also saving Sofia, teaching local under-privileged kids at the community centre and learning valuable lessons from the preacher, who is not what he seems.

Solomon neatly wraps up Jordan's journey by film's end - he does, of course, achieve some redemption - but, through the creaky machinations of the story, little of the journey rings true. Fortunately, some pleasure can be gleaned from the spirited work of Hunter, Freeman and Dunst, who all add sparks to the scenes they are in.

Prod cos: FilmColony, Revelations Entertainment, Echo Lake Productions
US dist:
Sony Pictures Classics
Int'l sales:
Exec prods:
Morgan Freeman, Lori McCreary, Fred Schepisi, Andrew Spaulding, James Burke, Doug Mankoff
Richard N Gladstein, Adam J Merins, Ed Solomon
Roger Deakins
Prod des:
Francois Seguin
Pietro Scalia
Mark Oliver Everett
Main cast:
Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter, Kirsten Dunst, Dorian Harewood