The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines levity as “excessive or unseemly frivolity,” while offering a secondary, alternative meaning: “lack of steadiness.” I’m guessing that writer/director Ed Solomon had the first definition in mind as an ironic comment on the rather gloomy events in his film, though the second definition might be nearer the mark.
This 2003 release, which played almost nowhere, is finally getting a public screening locally. And while it’s easy to see why Levity received scant distribution, it’s a far more interesting work than its obscurity would suggest. It’s also a far less interesting work than its high-powered cast might make you expect.
If the name Ed Solomon is unfamiliar to you, that may be because you aren’t likely to equate this kind of art-house fare with the screenwriter of the Bill and Ted movies, Men in Black and the remake of The In-Laws. The central problem with his directorial debut is that it simply screams, “I’m a serious artist.”
Solomon is so obsessed with proving his artistic worth that he’s forgotten to afford his characters much in the way of simple humanity, and even less in the way of a sense of humor. To the degree that the film works as drama, look to stars Billy Bob Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Holly Hunter and, to a lesser extent, Kirsten Dunst for that accomplishment. Solomon’s script so stacks the deck against their characterizations that it sometimes seems amazing the actors can achieve any degree of effectiveness.
Thornton plays a man who is released, much against his will, from prison after serving 23 years for murder. Having no special plans, he goes back to the neighborhood where he committed the crime, where he inadvertently (and unbelievably) lands a job with a storefront preacher (Freeman) and then tries to make things “right” with the sister (Holly Hunter) of the man he killed. This turns out to be a tricky proposition, since he can’t bring himself to confess who he is, especially after he discovers how bitter she still is.
This presents one of the film’s least believable notions: She’s still obsessed with her brother’s murder, yet she has no clue what the killer looks like, has “heard” that he was killed in prison (and believes it), and hasn’t heard a word about his release. I’m not buying it, but Hunter is such a good actress that you accept her at her word, even while disbelieving the story. It’s a similar case with the Freeman character, who is too deliberately enigmatic and quirky to believe, but is still graced with the gravity the actor brings to any role. Bringing up the rear is Dunst, who only occasionally transcends the writing.
The real pity here is that Solomon, with the help of the Coen Brothers’ cinematographer Roger Deakins, has crafted a visually striking film with a terrific cast that can’t quite rise above its grim determination to be important. Levity is worth seeing for the visuals and the performances, but as drama it’s maddening.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke