REVIEW: Boulevard (2015)
Produced by: Monica Aguirre Diez Barroso, Ryan Belenzon, Mia Chang, Jeffrey Gelber
Written by: Douglas Soesbe
Edited by: Jake Pushinsky
Cinematography by: Chung-hoon Chung
Music by: Jimmy Haun, David Wittman
Starring: Robin Williams, Kathy Baker, Roberto Aguire, Bob Odenkirk, Giles Matthey, J. Karen Thomas, Giles Matthey
Filmed in 2013, screened at Tribeca in 2014, and finally given a release in 2015, Boulevard was the final film release left with an onscreen appearance in the late Robin Williams’ acting career (Absolutely Anything is the last ever, though Williams appears in voice only). The role isn’t necessarily the one you would have probably expected from the actor had you only ever thought of him as a comedian. After still fairly recent comedic releases like The Angriest Man in Brooklyn and A Merry Friggin’ Christmas, this one last little dramatic film comes our way to at least remind us of what Williams was capable of, even when he wasn’t trying to make people laugh, often times far more effective at making us feel empathy for a character than anything.
Boulevard casts Williams as a Nolan Mack, a sullen 60-year-old man with a consistent 9-to-5 desk job at a bank and a wife of 26 years who now sleeps in a separate room from him. Nolan also spends some of his free time visiting his father in the hospital, where his passionless existence extends to the fact that he can’t even treat the old man to a carbonated ginger ale. Reflecting on his dull existence, Nolan winds up in a dark part of town, where he unexpectedly finds himself in the company of Leo, a male prostitute. Leo, too, seems quite resigned to his existence and has settled into his lifestyle as his sole purpose in life, but Nolan, for once, sees a future – not only for Leo, but for himself, as well. The only thing that seems to stand in their way, though, is a lie.
Not an easy film to watch, Boulevard dwells on the secrets and lies Nolan keeps and tells throughout the short time we get to know him. The pressure of all this has squeezed out all the passion and drive from his life. The constant alertness of having to dodge questions and suspicions while answering correctly and consistently has made him an anxious, shy man. This is most prominently portrayed through his relationship with his (quite literally named) wife, Joy – similarly going along for the ride and attempting to look the other way, if only because she, too, cannot admit to herself that her affection was misdirected. Until Nolan found Leo, both individuals were seemingly content to live out the rest of their lives in complacent, feigned ignorance of Nolan’s proclivities.
While at times the film seems to be steering him to be a little too broadly morose and unprecedentedly nice, Williams still proves he was incredibly gifted at portraying an empathetic sad sack without diving into the territory of making the character pathetic or undignified. Nolan’s a conflicting character, particularly since Joy is seemingly such a good sport about the secrets she suspects he’s keeping, but until the film’s finale, you do still feel the weight of the burden and can’t help but feel for both of them. (The sensitivity of the portrayal can also be attributed to screenwriter Douglas Soesbe, who went through a similar, if not exactly the same, situation as Nolan.) Kathy Baker, as Joy, is actually the acting highlight of the film, subtly delivering knowing glances and silent pangs of anguish as she attempts to keep moving on with the life they’ve built, making her almost as tragic, if not more so in many ways, especially considering the finale. Roberto Aguire, however, isn’t outdone as the damaged Leo. While the dialogue he’s tasked with delivering could be a little bit less perfunctory, Leo comes off as someone who really has spent most of his life confusing sex with affection and payment for love, so when he does find in Nolan someone who is willing to genuinely care for him, it can’t help but set off the alarms in his mind and make him suspect of Nolan’s intentions. Aguire does well to make Leo just as tragic a figure as the other two leads, and the film is careful not to portray him as any sort of homewrecker, either – he’s clearly more of a bystander caught in the midst of a cold war. Bob Odenkirk is also present as Nolan’s outspoken best friend. There’s not much for him to do other than provide Nolan with an outsider’s perspective, but he is a welcome respite from the film’s otherwise melancholy atmosphere.
The film really is trying to convey the unenviable misery of the situation Nolan has gotten himself into, and it doesn’t feel exploitative, either. For a film about prostitution and long repressed sexuality, there’s a surprising absence of actual sex, and that’s actually kind of the point. Nolan clearly cares for Joy on some level, but he’s not attracted to her the way a husband should. In Leo, he sees one last chance, no matter how fleeting, at finding something he was once resigned to have to let go of on a daily basis, and yet he wants to stay faithful to Joy as much as he possibly can manage to be, despite going as far as he has. How the film plays this scenario out, however, and how it concludes really feels haphazard, though. The film spends most of its time exploring their pain, and yet the attempt towards the end to shift tones really feels like a copout, as if the filmmakers weren’t confident in their film enough to let it be as bitter as it probably should have been. Perhaps they were just trying to ensure people in Nolan’s situation that, as they say, “It gets better,” which I guess is noble, but feels completely wrong for Boulevard as a film. If this was not the intention, then it could have used more subtly upbeat material scattered about in the middle, particularly considering how the conclusion pans out. I’m attempting to keep away from spoilers here, but I felt that it was particularly tacky in the way it treated Joy as a character.
Still, is this film worth watching? If you must see it in the light of the lead actor’s passing, then, I guess, yes? It depends on what kind of a fan you were, though. If you were a fan of the broad spectrum of Robin Williams’ work throughout or even during certain periods in his career, Boulevard may well be an interesting film to watch for you, particularly if you were let down by most of the comedies that made up most of his later work. For me, Williams really is best when he is able to exercise his dramatic skills, and I’m simply glad that Boulevard leaves us off with one last really solid, substantial performance from the actor that respects him enough to not even require that he gives any hint of his motor-mouthed showboating. That being said, Boulevard will not be for everyone, even apart from its subject matter. It’s a fairly slow film, but it feels appropriate. However, many may feel like I did, in that I would have preferred that the film was a lot bolder in its tragedy or had attempted to spread out a lighter sprinkling of uplift throughout the film amidst the depressive stuff, rather than dump it all at the end and dashing over the sincerity of what came before. Boulevard, sadly, is a potentially excellent indie film, beautifully shot and with genuinely great performances, and still, much like its characters, it manages to sell itself short.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5