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  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
from Film Forum, 04/17/03

Ed Solomon's directorial debut—Levity—offers little of just that. This might surprise moviegoers eager for the latest from the writer of Men in Black. Fittingly, the title refers to what's missing from the lives of its burdened characters.

Solomon is a moviemaker with a lot on his mind, including forgiveness, faith, friendship, and the way we run from self-realization and dodge the consequences for our sins. These themes needed richer soil than his previous scripts for Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Charlie's Angels.

At 42, Solomon has at last found a home for these ideas. "I see a lot of my friends [in the entertainment industry] say, 'I've worked hard enough, so I'm going to cash in and do what comes easier,'" Solomon says. "I feel the opposite. I'm getting older, and in order to keep growing, I'm going to push myself."

The seeds for Levity were planted in Solomon's college days when he worked as a tutor for teenage prisoners. "I met this kid who had killed somebody," Solomon says. "He had been tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. He kept a photograph of the person he killed. The judge had told him to keep it and to hold the boy's things. I remember him saying, 'I had to hold his football.' That really haunted me."

Levity's plot grew from more than this encounter. It has roots in his own spiritual "grappling." Here's the premise:

An ex-con named Manual Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton) returns to society still haunted by his crimes. Staring out at the world like a friendly ghost, furrowed brow framed by long silver hair, he experiments with covert acts of kindness. His first subjects are the sister of the man he murdered, Adele (Holly Hunter), and her son. But things get complicated. A ringing telephone plunges him into the mysterious "ministry" of an agitated preacher called Miles Evans (Morgan Freeman).

Evans hires Manual to help him reach stubborn street youth. There, Manual develops a reluctant, fatherly affection for a beautiful wreck named Sofia (Spiderman's Kirsten Dunst). These promising relationships help Manual gain trust, influence, and confidence, but all of that is threatened when he becomes embroiled in a local conflict that tests his moral courage.

It's hard to believe this stuff is from the same pen that inked the scripts for the Bill and Ted comedies and Men in Black. Levity becomes the most soul-searching entry in Hollywood's recent streak of high-visibility parables. Like last year's Changing Lanes, it boils the anxieties of complex characters down to essential questions. Its heavily populated world of ethically challenged wanderers resembles the critically acclaimed Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. But it reminds me even more of Lawrence Kasdan's 1991 drama, Grand Canyon, as its broken heroes collide in misunderstanding and mutual need.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) gives Solomon's storytelling a striking interplay of shadow and chilly light. He finds drama in the silhouettes of city buildings against a night sky, in the cold solitude of a cell or a basement apartment, accentuating each character's spiritual emptiness. Blessed by Deakins's clear vision, the actors slip into their characters easily. While Thornton gives us the film's compelling center, Morgan Freeman nearly steals the show by relishing his role as the sandpaper-voiced Evans, a preacher more guilt-ridden than any since Robert Duvall's in The Apostle.

While the film focuses heavily on questions of the soul, Solomon sidesteps overtly religious dialogue. Manual's meditations on redemption entertain only those options that are humanly possible. He insists that he does not "deserve forgiveness." The possibility that forgiveness might be offered freely never occurs to him. So he wanders heavy-hearted from encounter to encounter, refusing to call upon the God he keeps talking about.

I asked Solomon, who is remarkably softspoken and humble, about the biblical quality of his hero's name. "I called him 'Manual' because of what he is capable of—Manual means 'by hand.' I didn't mean to use 'Emanuel' to give it any kind of religious connotation." He paused and smiled. "But then again … I did call him Manual Jordan—didn't I?"

His instinctive storytelling might reveal more "religious" truth than he intends. His characters seem ignorant of God's grace, even as they extend it to each other. Manual seems resolved to saving himself "by hand," but there's a hole at the center of his life that the gospel would fill perfectly.

Most mainstream movies make me eager to part company with their shallow, ill-mannered characters and cheap answers. Solomon prefers to leave us with important lingering questions. Just as he sometimes wonders what happened to that incarcerated teen, we are left wondering where his metropolitan pilgrims' progress will lead them. Do they have any inklings of real hope? Have they learned lessons that will quench their longing for relief, levity, and joy? These questions suggest that the movie's work is not over after the credits roll. That's when we have the opportunity to turn to our fellow moviegoers and really get to the heart of things.

"I'm not coming at this from a Christian perspective, although there are parallels for sure," the storyteller says cautiously. "I'm not coming to this film from a place of knowledge. I was trying to really explore questions."

Whatever Solomon's intentions were, the film's heavy spiritual subtext has not gone unnoticed. "Some members of the secular press have just attacked me for trying to make a Christian film. Initially, I got mad. I asked, 'How do you get that from this story?' And then I was kind of amused. Everyone has a right to read in what they want. But then I started thinking about it and I said, 'Well, what's wrong with that anyway? What if I was? Why not?'"

Is Levity a great Christian film? Some religious press critics think so.

Alex Field (Relevant) calls Levity "one of the most spiritually challenging films of the year so far. [It explores] themes of forgiveness and belief in God, or rather, a man's lack of belief in God juxtaposed with his paradoxical need for forgiveness from God. Solomon … launches a massive achievement with Levity. The story is clearly a spiritual one and could be the central metaphor in any number of sermons on redemption. Go see this movie, and you'll see what one guy in Hollywood has done better than just about every 'Christian film' ever produced."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "The viewer is not unsettled by the film's turmoil, but ultimately uplifted by the story's hopeful conclusion. Although rated R for its emotional intensity and the obscenity sprinkled throughout, none of the content is of an exploitive nature. Everything said and done further develops the characters … as they go down the road to redemption." He sees "a great deal of symbolism and imagery, which suggests Christ's atonement (even if not intended by the filmmaker). I found Levity touching, insightful, completely involving, and extremely moving. The best film so far this year, because it deals with a commonality—man seeking forgiveness."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) has some argument with the actors' performances, but he is intrigued by the plot. While "Solomon's film … doesn't answer the questions it raises, it does provide plenty of conversation starters. What is redemption and how does it work? Are there sins that cannot be forgiven? What is genuine remorse and how does it fit into the big picture? Is incarceration intended to be a punishment or an opportunity to rehabilitate? Where is God in all this?"

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) finds aspects of the film off-putting. "One can read a spiritual dimension into this meditative film despite its apparently secular characters. Indeed, its redemptive theme is overemphasized. It is rare that a film addresses the aftermath of violence and its lifelong effects as this one does without any sugar-coating. However, its grim presentation and not-truly-fleshed-out characters will try viewer patience, and those looking for its spiritual side may be put off by the preponderance of four-letter words."

Mainstream critics disagree on whether the film is profound or merely pretentious. You can scan through their reviews here.

For more on the interesting story behind the film, check out the story at The Los Angeles Times. Robert W. Welkos illuminates how funding was raised for Levity and the role that Pat Boone played in its development.

from Film Forum, 04/24/03More about Levity, Rivers and Tides … and XXX

Film Forum covered Ed Solomon's Levity last week. The movie is a challenging drama about lost souls seeking redemption in a cold and difficult part of the city.

This week, more religious press critics discovered this movie of bold questions and compelling spiritual quests.

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "Levity is proof that sometimes films with the best 'Christian' message are the ones that never intended to be them in the first place. Ed Solomon has written and directed a masterpiece that will touch every person who sees it and hopefully change lives."

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) says the film "explores remorse, repentance, and redemption. The message in the film, at least for me, was: In order to achieve Levity (lightness of being, freedom) you must first come to terms with the gravity of your own sin/reality. The film is a search for a relationship with God, who does not exist and yet does at the same time. Solomon finds truth in opposites in amazing ways. I encourage you to see Levity."

from Film Forum, 05/01/03

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) echoes the praise of other religious press critics for Ed Solomon's sobering drama Levity. Vaughn writes, "Levity is perhaps a quintessential Billy Bob Thornton film. Themes of forgiveness, redemption, goodness, caring, justice, violence, choices, history—they infuse Thornton's body of work and make for meaningful films. Each member of the cast turns in a stellar performance. Levity is grounded by many themes, perhaps none more important than the destroying and saving of worlds and souls. Solomon has understood that the best way to explore that elemental matter is to walk alongside a man capable of both destroying and saving."

And Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) writes, "Levity is uncomfortable territory. It's a probing, searching movie that connects us with our own sense of guilt and our search for grace. It reminds us that these are processes, that they are part of a journey, not subject to a quick fix. It invites us to be honest about our own misdeeds and our own broken relationships."