Writer-director Ed Solomon is best known as the screenwriter of the two Bill & Ted films and, more important, of Men in Black, as perfect a commercial confection as the '90s produced. (I admit it: I think the second Bill & Ted movie is pretty good, too. There! I've said it.) Levity is as unlike those as possible, and one might question the wisdom of Solomon in making his directorial debut with a project so antithetical to his strengths.
The film takes off from an interesting, though vaguely familiar, premise. In fact, it bears a strong resemblance to another uncharacteristically "serious" film from a comic filmmaker: Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 The Man I Killed, a.k.a. Broken Lullaby.
While still in his teens, Manual Jordan (Thornton) shoots and kills a convenience-store clerk named Abner Easley (Geoffrey Wigdor). It was one mad moment: Manual has never really understood why he did it. But that one mad moment seems to have forever ruined his life.
It's not merely that he spends the next 23 years in lockup. It's that, unlike some killers, Manual is not a sociopath; if anything he's the opposite. His whole personality seems dominated by an overwhelming sense of guilt that has not diminished an iota in all that time.
So deep is his remorse that he goes before the prison board to argue against himself. It's partly that incarceration is the only life he knows, but that's only secondary. "I don't deserve to be released," he tells them. Presumably it is precisely this attitude that makes them insist he should be released, and his sentence is commuted. "You're a free man!" they tell him, not realizing how far off base they are.
Manual finds himself adrift in a nameless city (Montreal, invoking Chicago). Aimless in Nameless, he lets his life direction be determined by the gruff voice of a random caller to an isolated pay phone he happens to be sitting near. The voice belongs to a freelance preacher named Miles (Morgan Freeman), who offers him a place to stay and a subsistence job. Well, why not? It's not like Manual has any other commitments.
His only interest outside the job is a woman (Holly Hunter) whom he begins benevolently stalking. It doesn't take a genius to figure out who she is--the sister of the boy he murdered, from whom he seeks some form of forgiveness or a means of atonement.
For the viewer, spending an entire film with Manual can be wearing: He's a colorless, humorless stick, a man defined entirely in terms of his one tragic mistake--defined that way both by himself within the film and by Solomon, his creator.
The character also has an overlay of religious meaning. When he goes to work for the preacher, he becomes known as Godboy. But the religious riffs remain as vague as Manual's character. Even more than in The Man Who Wasn't There and Monster's Ball, Billy Bob plays him as a husk, perhaps irredeemably and permanently hollowed out by his one defining moment.
Solomon works out the plot mechanics quite neatly--maybe too neatly. Each setup pays off on schedule, and the tidiness increases the feeling that Solomon is reaching for something complex and profound but unable to set aside his well-honed commercial instincts. That is, while Levity would fit nobody's notion of a pandering Hollywood film, it still ultimately feels a bit plastic. Its approach to the Big Issues has more in common with, say, the middlebrow, faux-profundity of American Beauty or a late Neil Simon play than the subtle, more ambivalent approach to similar material one gets from Bergman or Kieslowski.
There's enough interesting about the film--like some clever identity themes--that the totality is frustrating. You want to grab Solomon by the lapels and assault him with speeches from Stardust Memories and Sullivan's Travels about embracing one's comic talents rather than going for "High Seriositude." But, as it stands, Levity is more like Gravity Lite.