Levity

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There is probably a good film in “Levity,” but it’s hidden beneath layers of heavy-handed dramatizing and a large roster of tortured-soul characters.

Written and directed by Ed Solomon (who scripted “Men in Black” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures,” among others), “Levity” moodily gives us Manual Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton), just released from prison after serving 23 years for a murder he committed in his youth. He keeps a photo of his victim on his wall and doesn’t think he deserves to be released. But out on the streets again, he returns to the town in which the crime — a robbery gone awry — occurred.

In solemn voice-over, Manual tells us he has no hope of redemption because the only way for that to occur would be for him to find himself in the exact same situation again and to act differently — and that, we know, is impossible. But he makes attempts, contacting the sister of his victim, a sassy single mom named Adele (Holly Hunter) and fumbling for some kind of friendship with her.

Thornton’s role is curiously similar to the one he played in “Monster’s Ball,” where he began a relationship with the wife of a man he had executed. His performance, however, is closer to “The Man Who Wasn’t There”: taciturn, somber and humorless. (The other characters in “Levity” remark on his inability to get a joke, in fact.)

Holly Hunter is in familiar territory, too, giving us another woman who don’t take no crap from no one. The rest of the cast is retreading ground, too, for that matter. Morgan Freeman plays a wisely mischievous inner-city preacher who helps Manual, and Kirsten Dunst plays a spoiled, charismatic teen-age girl who spends her nights getting drunk at a dance club.

The performances are all excellent, especially considering Solomon’s script gives them little to work with beyond some monologues and moments. What Freeman’s pastor is doing, exactly, is not clear — he seems to be somehow forcing teens into his shelter to hear him preach — and I’m convinced Dunst’s character didn’t even need to be in the film.

In additon, some of the details of the plot are a little too tidy. Adele has a teen-age son whom she has named after her deceased brother; guess which character in the film is in danger of being shot?

In the end, there has been abundant set-up and much angst, but little payoff or resolution. In his attempts at subtlety, Solomon has shot his film full of obscurity.

C (1 hr., 40 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some brief violence.)

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