In Levity, Billy Bob Thornton sports long, lank locks that suggest he used a pair of safety scissors to make himself look like a shaman. It's a shame that Levity has so little else to offer, because writer-director Ed Solomon sincerely wishes to make a statement about sin and second chances. Unfortunately, the first-time filmmaker seldom looks past the superficial.
Thornton's character is named Manual Jordan, hinting at the religious overtones to come. He's a convicted murderer who's surprisingly reluctant to leave jail after serving more than 20 years of his sentence. He finds prison an ideal place to nurse his guilt over fatally shooting a young convenience store clerk, but against his wishes, his good behavior secures his release.
He wanders aimlessly through bad neighborhoods until, on a whim, he picks up a ringing pay phone one night in an empty parking lot. A gruff voice asks for "Dwayne," and when Manual says he's alone, the voice asks if he has anything better to do that night. We suspect Manual's being enlisted in some kind of criminal activity, but instead it's the opposite.
Gravel-throated Rev. Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman) runs a community house across the street from a rave nightspot, and he provides club-hoppers parking if they'll listen to 15 minutes of his nightly sermons. Wearing two earrings and a seashell necklace, Freeman expertly makes Evans one of those crotchety crusaders who seize on good deeds like junkies seize on their fixes. Retiring late at night, he growls with both pride and resignation, "I gotta make soup for a hundred in three hours."
Manual drifts along in Evans' wake, accepting a doorman job and a place to live. He also befriends a self-destructive party girl (Kirsten Dunst) who calls him "God Boy" and recklessly gets drunk, high and familiar with anyone in arm's reach. He also broods on the impossibility of atoning an evil deed, saying, "Time makes sure we're never in the same place twice," with such foreboding that we have no doubt that time will do exactly that.
Secretly craving forgiveness, Manual gradually ingratiates himself into the life of Adele (Holly Hunter), a single mom and the sister of the youth he murdered. It's hard to get a fix on Adele. Hunter's fierce over-emoting contradicts the role's passive qualities. Adele's son Abner (Geoffrey Wigdor) happens to be a temperamental gang-banger named for her brother, and Manual's attempts to mentor him telegraph the film's intentions.
Thornton has played the lead in only a handful of films, yet Levity overtly invites unflattering comparisons to his best. Manual strikes up a relationship with a woman who's unaware of his connection to a deceased loved one, just like he did in Monster's Ball. Manual's an ex-con trying to make sense of life outside of prison, just like he did in Sling Blade. He narrates the film with his sepulchral tones, just like he did in The Man Who Wasn't There.
Thornton may be well cast as a haunted man, but Levity's ideas about faith and human nature feel excessively naive. The script suggests that if you thrust responsibility on someone, they'll rise to the challenge, as Evans does with Manual and Manual in turn does with another character. Yet this view grossly oversimplifies the difficulties of overcoming drug abuse and recidivism. Levity proves similarly credulous about women and safety: Adele invites Manual into her apartment, even though he's an admitted stalker who's only spoken to her twice on the street and, for that matter, looks like a backwoods lunatic from "The X-Files."
Writer-director Ed Solomon's prior credits include "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and the writing teams of films like Charlie's Angels, but Levity's attempts at quips and banter feel forced and misguided. Contrary to its title, Levity never lightens up, although Thornton's haircut proves good for a laugh.