Difficult to detach from the untimely suicide of its star, Robin Williams, Boulevard, passably directed by Dito Montiel, is a basically competent but somewhat incurious little bildungsroman about a late-middle aged man’s attempts to reclaim value and emotional autonomy in a life beset by grinding repetition and pernicious pretence. Williams gives an affecting and engaging lead performance as Nolan Mack in his final screen role.
Nolan is a bank clerk of almost twenty-six years sterling service. His ostensible troubles amount to a catatonic father (Gary Gardner) and a pleasure cruise-hungry wife, Joy (Kathy Baker). It is his conscience, however, which has become the greatest burden. He tires of the work-marriage routine and decides to finally confront his homosexuality head on, though the film often conflates these two ideas. A propos of his frustrations, Nolan decides to stop down the titular boulevard. There, he picks up a young male prostitute, Leo (Roberto Aguire), who he nervously courts with handsome payments and angst-ridden declarations of regret. Leo is both sceptical and vulnerable, but eventually a quasi-paternal bond develops (mirroring none-too-subtly Nolan’s own fractured relationship with his father) in which Nolan must attempt to maintain a respectable public face while feeding his now frantic emotional desires. It is not long before he is skipping work and sporting a black eye. The film then poses the question: how much will Nolan risk in order to live as he wishes?
Montiel effectively uses reflections – mirrors, TVs, windows – to amplify Nolan’s loneliness and self-doubt, and Williams channels previous serious roles to give an empathetic, though no less mannered, quality to Nolan. Steve Carrell’s performance in Foxcatcher may provide a recent comparison. The dialogue is sometimes heavy-handed – Joy remarks, “We have separate beds, separate lives!” – and poor Bob Odenkirk, as Nolan’s English lecturer best friend, is given little but a series of half-baked literary references to chew through.
Most striking about the film, however, is its inability, like its protagonist, to explicitly tackle homosexuality. Now, there is a strange but endemic anxiety in American cinema regarding the portrayal of gay sexual activity. This film further eschews the debate by emphasising the emotional connection between Nolan and Leo. As a result, the film is ultimately squeamish toward sexual contact and presents few sustained examples of homophobia (bar the self-hating, malevolent pimp). In this respect, it leaves the viewer with a sense of emptiness – a sense of being unfulfilled.