LEVITY — ** — Billy Bob Thornton, Holly Hunter, Morgan Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, Geoffrey Wigdor, Manuel Aranguiz, Luke Robertson; rated R (profanity, violence, vulgarity, drugs); see "Playing at local movie theaters" for complete listing of local theaters.

"Levity" is one of those movies that is so completely, aggressively mediocre that it almost makes you angry.

Given the cast and talent involved here, there's no reason for this film to be so completely punchless and unmemorable. And if this really is the result of nearly two decades of script work, maybe the filmmakers needed another 20 years to whip it into shape.

"Levity" is also one of the most deceptively titled films ever. It's a dour drama that's utterly lacking in humor and depth, and one that thinks it's a lot more profound than it actually is.

Worse, it's one of the softest opening-night Sundance films in the film festival's history (it opened this year's event). And considering that Sundance has featured such lightweight openers as "What's Cooking?" and "My First Mister," that's really saying something.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as Manual Jordan, who's been released from prison after serving 20 years for killing a man during a convenience-store heist. Manual is remorseful — but he's also more than a little reluctant to leave.

Still, he's determined to find redemption outside prison, which may come when he finds himself in the employ of Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman), a would-be do-gooder with feet of clay who's running a community center.

At the same time, Manual also strikes up a friendship with Adele Easley (Holly Hunter), the sister of the man he killed. And while Manual wants to unburden himself and earn her forgiveness, he finds that he can't disclose his real identity to her.

The film marks the directorial debut of Ed Solomon, a veteran screenwriter whose credits include contributions to the "Charlie's Angels" and "X-Men" movie scripts. But as a director, he makes mistakes typical of first-time filmmakers, confusing slow pacing and wordiness for character development. And unfortunately, few if any of these characters are worth developing.

Oddly, his cast doesn't seem all that inspired. Thornton is so low-key as to be dull, while Freeman uses an even more gravelly vocal inflection, which is a bit laughable.

The exception here is Hunter, whose performance is solid, as usual. But her character is surprisingly underwritten in comparison to the others (especially Kirsten Dunst's uninteresting, drug-addicted teen).

"Levity" is rated R for frequent use of strong sex-related profanity and crude sexual slang terms, violence (beatings, vandalism and gunplay) and drug content (marijuana possession and discussion of addictions). Running time: 100 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com