Manuel Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton) wears his imprisonment like a hair shirt: Its solitude has been his penance for the last 22 years — all of his adult life.
A fading newspaper photograph of Abner Easley (Luke Robertson) taped to his cell wall seems to silently judge him. But judgment doesn’t really come from the small, paper ghost of the young man he murdered in a robbery gone wrong. It comes from within himself and he — like the state — has found himself guilty. Jordan’s guilt, though, transcends the laws of men. It reaches into the realm of free-floating sin within a man who rejects his belief in God.
Jordan has a legal redemption thrust upon him when — against his will — the prison board releases him. He wanders the streets as much a ghost as the one in the clipping he carries in his battered suitcase. He finds himself as alone as he was in prison; his cheap hotel room becomes just another cell and he returns to the scene of his crime in the dim hope of performing the fifth step of a five-step plan of redemption: “being in the same place, in the same situation and doing something different.” Literally a shadow of himself, Jordan stands in front of the SaveMart store more to have something legal to do than out of any belief in his salvation — which he habitually holds away at arm’s length.
But Jordan receives a call toward redemption all the same, from a pay phone just outside the SaveMart. Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman) — a preacher who looks like a gone-to-seed Shaft with the froggy voice of his probable namesake, Miles Davis — is on the other end of the line searching out one of his workers, but Jordan will do.
Jordan takes a job at Miles’ community center, which is near a warehouse used for rave parties. He allows the ravers to park their cars on the center’s lot and then, in return for the service, he gives them the choice of either spending 15 dollars or suffering one of Miles’ 15-minute, topical sermons.
If Jordan’s long gray hair, formal and laconic speech, and ascetic manner make him an ironic, latter-day John the Baptist, then Sofia Mellinger (Kirsten Dunst) — one of the ravers who tosses him her keys and calls him “Godboy” — is his far-from-perfect Salome. Booze and Ecstasy fuel her dancing until she literally drops. And though she never asks for his head on a silver platter, after a series of run-ins and rescues, she puts her heart in his hands.
But Sofia doesn’t distract the penitent Jordan from his five-step plan. He’s spent a couple of decades on steps one and two: acknowledgment and remorse. Steps three and four, “making it right with your neighbor” and “making it right with God,” seem beyond him as an atheist practically cloistered in the community center’s basement — until he runs into Adele Easley (Holly Hunter), Abner’s sister, on the street. She offers him both temptation and, unknowingly, a hope of redemption, while her troubled son — named Abner (Geoffrey Wigdor) after the uncle who died before he was born — may open up a pathway to step five.
With Levity, Ed Solomon, a veteran comedy writer from TV’s “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” to Charlie’s Angels, has plotted a modern redemption fable for his directorial feature debut that often substitutes a subtle irony for the genre’s typically romantic tone. Even the title is ironic: While the other principal characters wisecrack as a well-practiced defense against their dire situations, their levity seems beyond Jordan and at times just pisses him off. He’s a secular monk inwardly compelled toward salvation even as he denies it, a ghost tempted to search out both forgiveness and pleasure in the flesh, and a self-described nonbeliever who ends up being a preacher’s right-hand man.
The irony of Solomon’s visual storytelling and the actors’ performances act in concert as they flesh out the dark night of Jordan’s soul — Miles as a lesser god and both Sofia and Adele as Mary Magdalenes to Jordan’s equivocal Jesus. But the contrivances of Solomon’s plot poke through the fabric of his fable and ultimately deflate his Levity.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].