As much as we all know that Robin Williams is an all time great comedian, I’ve always been more affected by his dramatic work. He’s been nominated (and awarded) by the Academy for some of these turns, but I still think in some ways he’s always been underrated for his drama. As such, it’s no surprise that I think he’s fantastic in Boulevard, but I sincerely hope that I’m not alone. His performance in Dito Montiel‘s new movie is one of his final theatrical roles, yes, but it also might be one of his best, which is saying something. Rarely has he played as low key a person as he plays here, giving light and warmth to the character in a way that only he can. Between Williams’ sensitive turn and Montiel’s direction, everything about Boulevard is centered around this one character and his mostly internal struggle. To be sure, in hands less sure than the ones from Montiel and Williams, the film could have bungled the tale of a quiet married man coming to grips with his homosexuality as middle age turns to his later years, but this manages to be both compelling and sensitive. Boulevard sometimes is perhaps a bit too quiet for its own good, but that’s a small complaint, as this is still a very strong flick.
Up until we meet Nolan Mack (Williams), he’s led about as unassuming a life in Nashville as one could possibly lead. He’s been married to his wife Joy (Kathy Baker) for years, but it only takes one glimpse at how they have separate bedrooms to know that this is a marriage of convenience, if a very comfortable and even loving one. Nolan only seems to have one friend, the far more outgoing Winston (Bob Odenkirk), and has stayed at his same banking job for decades. Life is all about quiet routines, until one day while driving home from work, that is. Something inside of Nolan compels him to drive past a group of prostitutes and pick one up. The young man (Roberto Aguire) he picks up expects sex, but Nolan takes him to a motel and just wants company/to talk. He learns the kid is named Leo and it’s clear that something is emerging within Nolan. He starts changing his habits, ever so slightly beginning to confront his sexuality and the process of coming out. He doesn’t want to hurt Joy and legitimately has treasured their life, but his true self is finally ready to emerge. As Nolan spends more time with Leo and attempts to hide this burgeoning secret life, it’s only a matter of time until it all comes to a head.
It’s obviously bittersweet to see Robin Williams on screen, but despite his real life tragedy, it only takes moments before he disappears into this role and is just Nolan to us. Almost completely stripped of his manic mannerisms designed to make us laugh, this is as three dimensional a character as he’s done in some time. Williams is really terrific here, tapping into this human being and truly bringing him to life. He lets so much be shown with just his face, be it in conversations with Joy or Leo, the latter in particular. Sex isn’t on Nolan’s mind, but just an open conversation, and it shows in the way Williams delivers his lines there. It’s top ten work for him, a moving capper to a career that ended far too soon. Kathy Baker gets to reveal all you need to know about their marriage in one key scene but is solid throughout, clearly more in the know than Nolan realizes. Baker is strong (especially in one sequence where the classic film Masculin feminin does more of the talking than Joy or Nolan can), while Roberto Aguire is slightly more hit or miss. At times, Aguire is a perfect scene partner for Williams, but sometimes he’s just a bit too broad for the part. As for Bob Odenkirk, he’s a bit of comic relief, but also shows a counterpoint to Nolan’s personality. Odenkirk is slightly underused, but welcome whenever he shows up. Also in the cast are the likes of Henry Haggard, Eleonore Hendricks, and Giles Matthey, but without question, Williams is the star of this cast.
Dito Montiel has made a solid career out of depicting stories of men who can’t properly communicate, but he’s never been as sensitive as he is here. This is his best work since A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, full of emotion as well as Williams’ tremendous performance. Montiel took a quiet and almost play-like script from Douglas Soesbe and transformed it into something cinematic. Nolan’s car rides in particular have a haunting quality about them. The ending is possibly a bit too wrapped up for such a potentially messy subject, but everything is handled with care, so it’s just a choice I wasn’t as fond of. Montiel really does a strong job with Boulevard here, taking Soesbe’s screenplay and filming it for maximum emotional effect.
Especially if you like quiet character studies, Boulevard has a lot to offer. In particular, there’s the performance from the late and great Williams, but the story itself is enough to rope you in. If not an absolutely great film (again, sometimes it’s just a touch too quiet), this is a very good one, something that deserves to be seen. Montiel and Williams make a strong team, telling a simple story in as powerful a way as possible. Give Boulevard a shot and you’ll likely be moved by what you find…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!