- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

Quietly tucked away in city art houses and scheduled for a gradual release in the summer, “Levity,” Ed Solomon’s directorial debut, won’t likely compete with “The Hulk,” “Bad Boys II” or “Matrix Reloaded.”
  Mr. Solomon, however, is no stranger to blockbuster movies. After all, he’s the scribe behind “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Men in Black,” and he co-wrote the wildly successful screen adaptation of “Charlie’s Angels.”
  He’s not hurting for a hit, in other words; so he was itching to try something different.
  The result: a flinty, contemplative, deliberately paced and highly spiritual story about a repentant murderer’s struggle to adjust to life outside of prison.
  “I don’t understand why it’s weird to some people,” says Mr. Solomon in a recent interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Georgetown, explaining his transition from mega-hit writer to art-movie auteur.
  “I mean, how could you spend your whole life doing the same kind of thing? I don’t know one comedy writer or one comedian who doesn’t have this other side to him,” he says.
  Given his gift for comic fabulism, you would expect a bit of “Bill & Ted”-type campiness from Mr. Solomon, 42, a native of the San Jose, Calif., area.
  But there’s no trace of such giddy, outsize humor: He’s reserved and bookishly chatty, as far from the Californian empty-headedness of those two zany characters as one could be.
  For “Levity,” Mr. Solomon had the good fortune to land a superb cast of similarly minded players, including Billy Bob Thornton, Holly Hunter, Morgan Freeman and Kirsten Dunst, the “Spider-Man” ingenue who was looking to expand her horizons.
  The film was shot for a mere $7 million in Montreal. (“Everybody worked for nothing,” according to the writer-director). Mr. Solomon had the freedom to explore noncommercial themes of religion and spirituality in ways he didn’t even notice until the movie was finished.
  “I didn’t realize until two weeks ago that the film was so steeped in a kind of spiritual questioning,” he says. “But when I look back at all the individual, day-to-day choices that were made, I guess it was.”
  At the outset of the movie, its central character, Manual Jordan (Mr. Thornton), is released from prison after 23 years. Convinced that he’s irredeemable, Jordan both fears and welcomes retribution.
  “You’ve got a guy who has killed someone. It’s a major act on a secular level, and it’s a major act on a spiritual level,” Mr. Solomon says. “I was interested in putting this guy in a corner he couldn’t get out of and watching him squirm.”
  The same could be said for the other main characters in “Levity”: an inner-city preacher (Mr. Freeman) and a self-destructive girl from the suburbs (Miss Dunst), both of whom befriend the aimless Jordan; and the aunt of Jordan’s victim (Miss Hunter), still living in the same neighborhood where he took her nephew’s life.
  “I don’t think anybody is at peace in the movie,” Miss Hunter says. “I don’t think any of the characters are at one with the damage that they’ve done, or that’s been done to them.”
  The dramatic linchpin for the Jordan character is his atheism, says Mr. Solomon, himself an agnostic Jew.
  “He’s in jail and he thinks he belongs there, and so the punishment is making sense to him,” he says. “But then, suddenly they remove it and say, ‘OK, you’ve served your time.’ Now what do you do? If he believed in God, then it would be too easy he’d have an answer.”
  While he didn’t write the part with Mr. Thornton specifically in mind, the Academy Award winner was one of the first actors he considered.
  “There’s something essential about Billy’s connection to the world that makes him identify with this character,” Mr. Solomon says. “There’s something deeply human and connected about Bill, and there’s also something very detached and observing about him.”
  The idea of Jordan’s spiritual murkiness sent Mr. Solomon to a rabbi friend: What might such a character an unbelieving seeker read as he intellectualizes his state of limbo?
  Suggested the rabbi: Maimonides, a 12th-century Jewish philosopher best known for writing “The Guide to the Perplexed,” a landmark, rationalistic commentary on Old Testament scriptures.
  Maimonides, Mr. Solomon was informed, had fashioned a sort of five-step redemption program on how sinners can right themselves with God.
  It was a perfect literary hook for a story rooted in the experiences of real-life murderers.
  While a student at the University of California in Los Angeles, Mr. Solomon volunteered for the campus Prison Coalition as a tutor in a maximum-security juvenile facility. There, he met an 18-year-old convicted killer, soon to be shipped off to an adult penitentiary.
  A judge had ordered the young man to wear his victim’s clothes, hold his football, to physically touch his personal effects. He also ordered him to keep a photograph of his victim.
  “The boy wouldn’t stop staring at it,” Mr. Solomon remembers, a powerful impression that he would incorporate into the “Levity” script.
  Years later, as his screenwriting career was taking off, he decided to further explore the idea of remorseful killers. He contacted several convicted murderers, who, he observed, fell into two groups: secular and faithful.
  The former group focused on mentoring high-school youngsters, on “giving back” to the community in a temporal sense. The latter appealed to a merciful God and “were always trying to bring gang kids to church,” Mr. Solomon says.
  “Either way, they were trying to reconcile. But deep down they all had a sense that they could never make up for what they did. Yet they were compelled to go through the motions for eternity, or at least for their life on this planet.”
  “Did any of them try to develop and sustain meaningful relationships with the victims’ families?” chimes in Miss Hunter, perhaps thinking of the personal link between her character and Jordan.
  “None that I was aware of,” he replies.
  That part was his own invention, what he calls the “main juice” of “Levity”: the question of whether people find a sense of redemption from performing good acts or from believing that absolution is an unearned gift from God.
  “That’s why it took me so long to write, because it wasn’t until I figured that out that the movie opened itself up,” he says.
  What he stumbled on was a debate that has roiled Roman Catholics and Protestants for the past 500 years: Does God grant salvation on his own terms, or is it a reward for a lifetime of good works?
  Mr. Solomon describes his own view this way:
  “My sense is that good works create a kind of secular grace that good works, or even good intentions accompanied by actions, leave a trail that over the long run would have to accrue positively.”
  Intellectual faith versus good deeds: It’s a ticklish question, one that probably will divide theologians for the next 500 years.
  Maimonides had a reason to write his guide for the “perplexed.”

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