You ever want to tell Billy Bob to just lighten up?

Billy Bob Thornton is someone you can believe a lot of things about. He has this way of becoming his character that is rather unreal. Consider the range he has played on screen - from a retarded murderer in Sling Blade to redneck types in U-Turn and The Apostle, to the Jim Carville-esque character in Primary Colors, to the quiet ball of emotions in The Man Who Wasn't There. I imagine there are roles against type that Thornton is smart enough to not try (say, something Nathan Lane would jump for), but what he's taken on always seems to reflect an inner truth about the man.

In Levity, Thornton is again a murderer, Manuel Jordan, this time being let out of his comfortable prison against his own wishes. He is a man who has spent a lot of time thinking about what he's done and the young convenience store clerk who never had a chance to live out his life. Now, walking around like a ghost, things seem to happen to him. He talks slowly, like he has all the time in the world, asserting himself pretty much only when he sees something wrong.

As he wanders through the Chicago projects, he passes a phone which starts ringing. Manuel answers. The voice at the other end is trying to get him to come in to do a job. When he finally figures out it's not who he thinks it is, this man offers Manuel the job.

That person is Miles (Morgan Freeman), who runs a few community programs nearby. These are what would now be termed "faith-based", though Miles preaches with an unusual combination of piety and gutter worldliness. The center's parking lot is right across from an all night rave club, and Manuel's job is to help ferry in people into the center to get free parking in return for fifteen minutes of being preached to. One night, Manuel has to help get one girl back home who has passed out at the club for the umpteenth time. Thus begins an odd relationship between the two, with Manuel telling her to shape up and stop wasting her life, and Sophia becoming friends with him, not because she agrees, but because here's somebody who actually cares.

The one thing Manuel does on his own is enter the life of Adele Easley (Holly Hunter). This is one of the stranger things about the film, in that he comes on like a polite stalker. Somehow, she sees something in him, and they slowly, slowly get closer, though he doesn't mention his own name. Adele is really the epitome of the film's title. All the characters, save Manuel, share it to an extent, but she is constantly using humor to lighten the situation, often from their own discomfort. As it turns out, this is the sister of the boy he murdered twenty years previously. There's something he wants to accomplish here, but it seems like he isn't even sure what it is.

The film stutters forward, giving more and more responsibilities to Manuel, a man who seems least interested in such involvement with the world. At the center, he has to take the lead with a group of teens who sabotaged a construction site. Adele has him talk with her son, who is on the wrong path and is currently seeking revenge on the teen who shot him. While Manuel doesn't feel qualified, he gives each task an utmost importance.

I want to compare the film to Taxi Driver, but that's not really fair. This isn't a bloody film, but I feel a certain similarity between Manuel and Robert De Niro's character. There's a struggle here between apathy and taking whatever control you can over your own life. The plot is loose, flowing between events like mere mile markers on the highway of his life, until they have added up to something meaningful to him, and therefore, to us. Taxi Driver raises its stakes much higher than this film, and the payoff works much better there. Levity's ultimate conclusion comes a bit too conveniently, and loses energy by simultaneously executing two completely opposing clichés.

My mind tells me something is missing here, and I search and scour for it in the dark recesses up there. Part of this is rejection of Hollywood formula - up until the flawed ending - and I can easily forgive the film for it, slapping myself mentally for falling into that trap. The other side, and where I think Levity could have been a better film, is on the side of meaning - the connections and themes are almost too focused on Manuel's redemption. I'd like to have seen the characters relating amongst themselves a little more. This is not a killer problem, though, it's still remarkable film that could have been on the edge of great. If anything, this is one to check out for the amazing performances by everyone involved.

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