Williams makes unimaginative picture worth seeing
Boulevard is a tough movie to review, and an even tougher movie to watch, and not because it’s exceptionally good or exceptionally bad; it’s neither of those, but is a decent, if somewhat unoriginal, follow up by director Dito Montiel to his much lauded 2006 picture A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. What makes the film hard to look at objectively is that it features Robin Williams in his last dramatic role, and it’s very difficult to see Williams’s performance here and not think about what he was going through when this film was made, only a year or so before his tragic suicide.
Williams plays Nolan Mack, a milquetoast bank loan officer who’s been at the same job for 25 years, and been married to his wife, Joy (whose name, no doubt, is a consciously ironic touch by screenwriter Douglas Soesbe) for just as long. Nolan is steadfast and loyal and insists he loves Joy (an excellent Kathy Baker), but the two have separate bedrooms, and Nolan seems reluctant to plan a cruise vacation that Joy’s fixated on.
Of course we’ve seen this set up in films many times before, and it’s no spoiler to reveal that Nolan is a deeply closeted gay man, going through the motions both in his marriage and in his life, too afraid to come to terms with his true self. Near the beginning of the picture, we see Nolan driving alone in his car, and the look on his face, with his mournful eyes, defeated, forlorn stare, and hard set, downturned mouth tells us everything we need to know. When Nolan pulls into work and his boss asks him, as a preface to describing a promotion opportunity, “Are you happy?” and Nolan looks confused and scared, it’s a painful challenge to separate the character from the actor portraying him. Moments like these throughout the film are heartbreaking.
The story’s conflict begins when Nolan meets Leo (Roberto Aguire), an attractive young street hustler. Their relationship, which varies from sexual to paternal to brotherly to intensely obsessive, becomes a catalyst for major events and changes – both good and bad – in Nolan’s (and Joy’s) prosaic life. As such, the script is reminiscent of pictures like Beginners or Far From Heaven, in which a character comes out very late in life, with all the attendant issues and problems such a revelation can bring.
The film is full of well-worn clichés and plot elements that strain credulity, but is redeemed by stellar acting from Williams, Baker, and Aguire. To see Williams here is to grieve the loss of his tremendous talent all over again. Even in a somber picture such as this, we get moments of his comic sensibility; in a dinner party scene where Nolan cracks a few jokes, we see flashes of Nolan’s (and again, we wonder – Williams’s?) open, light, self, tamped down by fear and pain. One of the movie’s most powerful scenes features a monologue Nolan delivers at the bedside of his dying father, and it’s both wrenching and awe inspiring to see Williams perform such brutally raw material with the grace and unabashed honestly that were his trademarks.
Similarly, a pivotal, powerhouse scene between Baker and Williams late in the film plays out like a master class in acting; Baker is extraordinary, and it’s a privilege to watch these two masters of their craft at work. Even young Aguire, a relative unknown, holds his own in his scenes with Williams, portraying a sensitive, smart but troubled young man unsure of himself and his future. Again, it’s hard not wonder while watching their scenes together how lucky Aguire must have felt to have had the opportunity to work so closely with a legend like Williams, and how saddened Aguire must have been by Williams’s death.
The only wasted talent here is Bob Odenkirk, who is cast in a relatively thankless role as Nolan’s best friend, a college professor involved with a much younger student. Odenkirk’s only purpose here seems to be to react to Nolan either with confusion or worry. Odenkirk doesn’t get to be funny, and his role is so small and poorly written that he doesn’t even get to flex much dramatic acting muscle, either.
Montiel does do a fairly successful job of building tension, so the story’s denouement isn’t totally predictable, although the ending does feel a bit clunky and slightly shopworn. But if you do see Boulevard, don’t go because you’re expecting much from the story; go because you want to see a consummate actor at work, marvel at his skill, and mourn his loss. As Nolan tells Leo at one point, “People leave, you know. But with some people it just doesn’t seem fair.” Indeed.
Boulevard opens today at the Landmark Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.