A world premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, director Dito Montiel’s Boulevard now bears the unfortunate distinction of being the last live-action release of Robin Williams’ career. As wildly gifted of a comedian as Williams was, the roster of down-tempo movies in which he indulged a melancholy and wounded disposition is remarkably deep. And while this intimately scaled drama doesn’t touch the same heights of Good Will Hunting or exhibit quite the same sort of layered filmmaking technique present in Insomnia or One Hour Photo, Boulevard is nonetheless a fitting final film for Williams—flawed but confirming of the breadth of his talents.
The film centers around Nolan (Williams), a bank loan officer who lives a sleepy suburban existence with his wife Joy (Kathy Baker). After more than two-and-a-half decades at the same branch, he’s up for a promotion, but doesn’t seem too enthusiastic about it—not even bothering to share the information with Joy before his friend Winston (Bob Odenkirk) lets it casually slip at a dinner party. One evening, during an aimless drive down a street in a rundown part of town, Nolan takes notice of and pity on Leo (Roberto Aguire), a young kid who turns out to be a prostitute, hustling tricks to both pay for his rent and keep a pimp at bay.
Nolan, it turns out, is a closeted gay man, but his interest in Leo is something slightly more than libidinal; he doesn’t pay him for straight sex, but simply to spend time together, and sometimes admire his lean, youthful body. Nolan’s instincts to help, however, are eventually complicated by some of the other problems Leo faces, leading Nolan to a reckoning about the trajectory of his own life.
In films like A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Fighting and The Son of No One, Montiel has shown an affinity for working-class characters. Here, working from a script by Douglas Soesbe, Montiel reaches for a character far removed from the streets, to contrast with a scruffy wayward one who could easily populate the fringe of one of his other films.
Somewhat admirably, Boulevard doesn’t over-sketch its characters by loading up interactions with a lot of expository dialogue. But the flip side of this is there’s not much depth to Nolan and Joy’s relationship. Since viewers don’t know how the pair met or much about their shared lives, we don’t get a firm sense of the history that has kept them together. When they fight and Joy plaintively says, “I don’t want to live in the real world, that’s why I married you!” it’s a moment that might connect with more of an emotional punch if only viewers knew more about her life and interests—or even what Joy and Nolan share other than a mailing address and a couple friends.
Nolan and Joy both seem like passive participants in their own lives, which is fair enough and certainly not uncommon, but not necessarily the foundation of a great character study. Other supporting characters, like Leo’s threatening pimp, the equally string-bean Eddie (Gilles Matthey), come off as unconvincing—a setup for a further twist that never comes. With a more tightened narrative focus that jettisoned some of these extra plot elements, the movie could have found more time to dig into the bond that Nolan is so scared of severing.
What elevates Boulevard, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the performances. Williams takes a vaguely defined life of regret and sadness and slowly turns it into something special and heartrendingly bittersweet, showing viewers the commingled guilt, desire, and weight of responsibility informing his actions. Baker is certainly a game partner in their shared scenes, and Aguire locates a tenderness and reticence that matches the movie’s overarching tone. There’s a uniformity to the delicate nature of the turns, in other words—everyone is on the same page, even if an audience might wish that page would be turned a bit more quickly, for drama’s sake.
Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung trades in yellow and brown hues that effectively contrast day with night, and Leo’s more dangerous and unsettled world with Nolan’s ordered environments. He and Montiel also frame Williams in close-ups that allow the actor’s hangdog forlornness to effectively take central ownership of the film. Given the sad and sudden nature of Williams’ real-life death, this creates an enormous sympathy.
In the end, perhaps the movie’s generic moniker is appropriate. Boulevard isn’t wildly special or searingly memorable, but its story is roundly reflective of the experience of many thousands of closeted men and women (but especially men), beholden to an ingrained ideal of “normal” domesticity that runs counter to the nature of their being. On a certain level, one can’t help but reflect on Williams’ considerable dramatic gifts—the other side of the coin of his talent, the ruminative and deeply interior counter to his quicksilver wit—and succumb to the ambling, low-key insights of this side-street journey.
Director: Dito Montiel
Writer: Douglas Soesbe
Starring: Robin Williams, Roberto Aguire, Kathy Baker, Bob Odenkirk, Eleonore Hendricks, Giles Matthey, Henry Haggard
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Entertainment journalist Brent Simon is a superb parallel parker and sworn enemy to auto-play website videos, as well as a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.