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Levity

Sin tax

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The opening scene of Levity is lit with the mild glow of unreality. More than 20 years earlier, as a teenager, Manual Jordan did something awful, and he's been in jail for it ever since. Now his life sentence has been shrunk to time served, and he's free to go.

It turns out that what Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton) did was shoot someone dead -- an innocent teenager in a pharmacy holdup. But though the kid's got surviving relatives, nobody, apparently, protests Jordan's release. Thus, while he'd actually prefer to stay in jail, where he's used to things, Jordan is as free to go as a character in some fable of redemption.

That's just what Levity wants to be, and is: an intelligently made little story about a man making peace with the world, filled with attractive ambiguities and a generous regard for the human condition. Buoyed by fine performances and comfortable with its own loose ends, it's warm-hearted but not too much so -- a nice movie that tugs you in a direction you're inclined to lean anyway.

Adrift in the big city, the gaunt, white-haired Jordan falls in with a mysterious preacher named Miles (Morgan Freeman), who makes the well-heeled young patrons of a neighboring nightclub pay to use his parking lot by listening to a 15-minute sermon. Jordan believes he can never live down his crime; he keeps the newspaper photo of his victim taped to whatever wall he's sleeping beside. He doesn't have any fight in him, but Miles' tart, streetwise pragmatism -- and the proximity of street kids from the community center he runs -- slowly draws Manual back into life, where he gets concerned with the welfare of a self-destructive young clubgoer (Kirsten Dunst).

Still, the movie's key relationship is the risky one Manual cultivates with Adele Easley (Holly Hunter). He knows who she is -- the grown-up sister of his victim -- but doesn't reveal himself, in the vague slim hope of somehow making amends.

Levity is written and directed by Ed Solomon, whose résumé includes the scripts for Men In Black and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. While it's not surprising that a Hollywood scribe had a more personal script tucked away somewhere, it's a small wonder that Solomon's is this good: concise and gentle, with offbeat (but not cutely so) characters and interesting dialogue. Funny, too: Freeman, Hunter and Dunst all play jester to Thornton's somber straight man, complementing the appeal to lightness of spirit referenced in the film's title.

Levity's biggest weakness is the script's reliance on uncanny coincidences. But Solomon, in his debut feature as director, is skilled enough that you hardly notice. What's more, his star-studded cast handle their roles beautifully, from Freeman as the sly preacher and Hunter as a tough single mom to Thornton, soulful as always as the guilt-ridden anti-hero who's tossed out of one prison only to land in one of his own making.

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