Director Dito Montiel‘s agreeable later-life coming-out drama “Boulevard” already labors under a burden of true tragedy: It’s the last dramatic role the late Robin Williams filmed before his August 2014 suicide, the knowledge of which colors and shapes a viewer’s reaction to the film.
Williams stars as Nolan, a 60-year-old man with a perfectly normal life: 25 years working at the bank, marriage to his wife Joy (Kathy Baker) and a circle of good friends. Yet this isn’t the life Nolan wants, and one night he drives down to the part of town where young men and women lean against the cars that stop in their neighborhood to negotiate companionship.
After some initial nerves, Nolan finds Leo (Roberto Aguire), who kicks off Nolan’s large and long-in-the-coming life changes with a simple question: “Do you want to give me a ride?”
Written by Douglas Soesbe, “Boulevard” has many things to recommend it. It’s a film that knows the power of silence and how to use it, making us live in the same quiet as its characters do. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (“Stoker,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) also turns the streetlight-and-neon half-night of Nashville’s streets and buildings into something almost beautiful, even while bringing graceful shooting and careful camerawork to the service of the dialogue scenes.
“Boulevard” also has a slightly circumspect feel to it that makes it feel somewhat suspect, or at least too carefully managed. Nolan pays for Leo’s time and takes him to hotels, but never wants anything explicitly sexual, just to look at Leo and to talk to him. It’s understood that Nolan’s search for intimacy is more emotional than physical, but you also can’t help but feel like there’s a little bet-hedging and base-covering going on to make sure that the film’s dramatics aren’t overshadowed by the possible negative consequences of depicting any potential vision of gay male intimacy beyond a hug.
The actors are all excellent: Baker brings a perfectly measured tone to her work, with a long-building explosion coming after too much complicity. Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) adds warmth and realism as Nolan’s best friend, even when saddled with stunningly banal dialogue, while Aguire pulls off a balancing act with Leo, relaying both the appeal and the danger of his life — a high-wire act done without a net, one in which he might pull bystanders down with him when he slips.
Williams is the center of the film, though, and it’s one of his better performances. It’s not at the level of “One Hour Photo” or “World’s Greatest Dad,” in which the comedian’s roles demanded a little sour instead of sweetness, a little wickedness in the place of whimsy, but it also never slinks or slumps into the maudlin or mawkish, as Williams was also capable of doing when directors let him go too big in the pursuit of the moment.
Montiel uses a slightly lighter hand here than with his prior films, which are mostly chronicles of life in the big, bad five boroughs of New York, like “The Son of No One” and “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” “Boulevard’s” change in topic and geographical terrain benefits him significantly.
The film begins somewhat in the middle of Nolan and Joy’s story and never backtracks, not providing much on who they were earlier in their marriage, outside of a few spoken remembrances of it, and leaving Nolan’s motivations to visit the boulevard and find Leo early in the film as a mystery. Is this the first time Nolan’s driven down there or the hundredth?
A subplot about his father slowly dying in a home contextualizes Nolan’s kicking at the passage of time to live his own life. Subbing some expository dialogue for a few of the film’s silences, however, could have helped build empathy for the characters.
“Boulevard” consistently evokes the road not traveled, but doesn’t particularly stand out alongside other dramas that have explored the same terrain.