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 ...

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