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.

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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.

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"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?"

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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.

Are Christian movies really a good idea?

Speaking of Christian films, Christian press and mainstream press critic Peter T. Chattaway (Books & Culture, The Vancouver Courier) speaks up this week on whether Christian movies are such a good idea in the first place.

At the website Canadian Christianity, he writes, "This may sound like heresy, but for years, I have said that I am glad we do not have a Christian movie industry on anything like the same scale that we have a Christian music industry. In … recent years, as the Christian music scene has grown into the institution that it is today, it has become all too easy for we Christians to focus on our own little niche market and to ignore the larger musical world as a whole."

He points to the recent animated film Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie as an example of what a good Christian movie might look like. But then he goes on to look at the plentiful examples from the genre that tend toward proselytizing and mediocrity instead of artistry and excellence. He says of Left Behind II, "The writing and the direction are as pedestrian as ever. The story is basically an excuse to string together several didactic scenes in which our Christian heroes knock down the straw-man arguments of their skeptical friends. This sermonizing is punctuated by lame plot contrivances … and the occasional sinner's prayer."

Anger Management provokes critics' tempers

Last year's critically acclaimed Punch-drunk Love could have been titled Anger Management. In it, Adam Sandler played a man prone to explosions of rage. His temper was finally tamed by the grace of a compassionate woman seemingly made for him.

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This year, there is a movie called Anger Management, and Adam Sandler does indeed play the character on the receiving end of the lesson. Ironically, his temper in this film is not nearly as explosive. But when his therapist Buddy Rydell (Jack Nicholson) goes to work on him, anger becomes a serious problem indeed. And, to listen to the critics who have seen the film, it is not just Sandler who has a healthy degree of anger by the time the credits roll.

I have to add my own review to the list of those warning potential viewers that this is a movie to avoid. (Unfortunately, the movie is already this week's box-office champion.)

Director Peter Segal can be proud of the list of actors he's had the opportunity to work with. Sandler and Nicholson are joined by Marisa Tomei, John C. Reilly, Harry Dean Stanton, Heather Graham, and Woody Harrelson. But that's about all Segal can be proud of. All of these talents are wasted on material that rarely rises above gutter humor, and that invests time and energy in a game of second-guessing that grows tiresome and implausible. Watching Anger Management is like going to the NBA All-Star Game, and seeing a fantastic team take the floor, but when the game begins you realize that the action doesn't mean much.

Geri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Segal takes a reasonably funny premise … but goes for cheap laughs involving transvestite hookers, making Buddhist monks turn to violence, and jealous lesbians. The constant sexual references are at gutter level, and for a movie aimed at Sandler's target audience of impressionable pre-teen and teen males, the emphasis on how male anatomical size really matters is not a good—or even funny—message to send."

Movieguide's critic says, "Anger Management sounds fun, but it has several major problems. First, the significant plot device in the movie revolves around Dave's insecurity about his 'manhood' and how it 'measures up' to the general populace. Secondly, the movie has every deviant behavior one could imagine to 'color' the film, including scatological humor and distasteful homosexual jokes. These objectionable elements add only mildly to the humor of the story and drag the movie quickly and permanently into the category of '13-year-old, locker room humor.'"

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) testifies, "The more I watched this movie, the angrier I got. I think it was all of the injustice people committed against each other or got away with; it just seemed unfair. Instead of the characters' behavior coming off as funny or rude, sometimes it seemed cruel—and by the end of the movie, the defensive behavior is so exhausting, I didn't enjoy the movie. Save your money and time on this one."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "But it is no surprise to find that a brilliant premise treated sophomorically by Sandler's Happy Gilmore Productions results in a sophomoric film. This effort is far beneath Nicholson's talents. Poorly written, poorly directed, and poorly edited, this film wastes more opportunities for humor than it uses."

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) asks, "How bad is Anger Management? It's so bad that if you added up all the badness from Sandler's earlier movies (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy, etc.), it still wouldn't equal the astronomical amount of badness in [this movie.]" He takes apart the film piece by piece, right up to its conclusion, and then says, "Nothing that comes before can prepare you for the Yankee Stadium experience. Let's just say that Rudy Giuliani should never be allowed to act again. That millions will actually pay to see it this weekend depresses me more than I can say."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "Remember those kids who'd trap a bee and a wasp in a mayonnaise jar just to watch them go at it? They're the target audience for Anger Management. It's parents who trust the MPAA rating who'll need an encounter group after the credits roll. In addition to being obsessed with penis size, this vulgar film jokes about incest, masturbation, homosexuality, oral sex, sodomy, pornography, transsexual prostitution and bestiality. [The movie] approves of premarital sex and suggests that no measures—including mental cruelty—are too extreme if they accomplish a worthy goal."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says it "delivers so many of the key elements of CLASSic comedy that the movie's nagging and altogether unnecessary flaws can make you, well, furious." He adds, "The PG-13 rating for Anger Management is, quite simply, an outrage. The kinky sexual material … [makes] this movie wildly inappropriate for most fourteen years olds, let alone the nine and ten year olds who regularly flock to PG-13 material."

Mainstream critics are equally frustrated with the film. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "The concept is inspired. The execution is lame. Anger Management, a film that might have been one of Adam Sandler's best, becomes one of Jack Nicholson's worst." You can peruse other mainstream reviews of the film here.

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Are you ready to go back to Titanic? James Cameron is.

Ghosts of the Abyss is James Cameron's first movie since 1997's Titanic, and the filmmaker is still quite preoccupied with the boat. This time, he forgoes storytelling and acts as tour guide for a 3-D voyage to the magnificent ruins of the ship, accompanied by Bill Paxton, who serves as narrator.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Cameron wisely restrains from indulging in the more gimmicky tricks usually associated with 3-D movies. While to many, 3-D conjures up images of 1950s audiences donning goofy glasses and dodging projectiles, Cameron judiciously chooses to let the technology remain in the background, enhancing the viewer's overall sensory experience rather than cashing in on funhouse pranks. The 3-D effect is so seamlessly woven into the narrative that after a short time one is no longer conscious of the novelty and surrenders to the voyeuristic thrill of accompanying the filmmaker under the stormy swells, as he voyages down to the luxury steamer's watery grave."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) argues, "Cameron does a good job of keeping us involved in his film and showing us the significance of what we are seeing. A few unscripted and unexpected events even add a touch of drama and some added perspective to the expedition."

Movieguide's critic writes, "Ghosts … is a captivating documentary. The movie emphasizes a moral, heroic point of view, which is clearly James Cameron's point of view. The camerawork and editing make this an extraordinary movie. It has some minor flaws, but it is the type of movie many viewers will want to see again and again."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "I thought it was a good film and interesting. It just missed the ingredients for me to call it a 'great' documentary. I thought it would be scarier than it was because I was expecting him to put 'ghosts' on the ship but he didn't. So it wasn't."

Mainstream critics debate whether the film is a success or a shipwreck here.

Next week: Is Holes a wholesome family film? Is A Mighty Wind just blowing hot air?