Even burdened by tragedy, Dito Montiel's new film gives the late actor an impressive showcase
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.
SEE ALSO: The life of Robin Williams in photos:
Robin Williams, in memoriam
'Boulevard' review: Robin Williams' final dramatic performance walks well-worn ground
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 18: Zak Williams and Robin Williams attend the Timo Pre Fall 2009 Launch with Interview Magazine at Phillips De Pury on November 18, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/WireImage for Timo Wallets LLC)
Robin Williams with son Zak & wife Marsha during 'Death To Smoochy' Premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 26: Zak Williams, son of Robin Williams, throws out the ceremonial first pitch as Zelda and Cody Williams look on before Game Five of the 2014 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals at AT&T Park on October 26, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Robin Williams, son Zak & wife Marsha during 'Death To Smoochy' Premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
Robin Williams with son Zak & wife Marsha during 'One Hour Photo' Premiere at Academy Theatre in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
Portrait of actor Robin Williams, Marin County, California, 1999. (Photo by Chris Felver/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 12: A makeshift memorial for Robin Williams seen in front of Carolines on Broadway comedy club on August 12, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
Robin Williams in the kitchen in a scene from the film 'Mrs. Doubtfire', 1993. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)
You're a grown man now and I'm so proud of you. A little bit of you will always be my "Mr Pym". Happy Birthday, @zakpym!
Happy Birthday to me! A visit from one of my favorite leading ladies, Crystal.
Robin Williams visits a sick child in a scene from the film 'Patch Adams', 1998. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)
#tbt and Happy Birthday to Ms. Zelda Rae Williams! Quarter of a century old today but always my baby girl. Happy Birthday @zeldawilliams Love you!
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE - Emmy Award-nominated 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' airs every weeknight (11:35 p.m. - 12:41 a.m., ET), packed with hilarious comedy bits and features a diverse lineup of guests including celebrities, athletes, musicians, comedians and humorous human interest subjects. The guests for TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 12 included actor Robin Williams ('The Crazy Ones'), Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, Nolan Gould, Rico Rodriguez and Aubrey Anderson-Emmons ('Modern Family') and musical guest The Killers - also featuring Jimmy Kimmel Lives' 'Modern Family Feud: Kids Edition.' (Photo by Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images)
ROBIN WILLIAMS, JIMMY KIMMEL
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 5: 'Breakfast Burrito Club' -- Left to Right: Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Zach (James Wolk), Simon (Robin Williams) and Andrew (Hamish Linklater) delve into each other'Âs personal lives while brainstorming ideas for an ad campaign, on THE CRAZY ONES, Thurs. Oct. 17 (9:01 -Â 9:31 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. (Photo by Richard Cartwright/CBS via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 5: 'Breakfast Burrito Club' -- Simon (Robin Williams) brainstorms ideas for an ad campaign for the breakfast burrito, on THE CRAZY ONES, Thurs. Oct. 17 (9:01 9:31 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. (Photo by Richard Cartwright/CBS via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 1515 -- Pictured: (l-r) Actor Robin Williams, host Jay Leno during an interview on December 22, 1998 -- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Robin Williams, Zelda Williams and Cody Williams at the Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, : Academy Award-winning actor Robin Williams wears a clown nose as he places his hands in cement during his hand and footprint ceremony outside Mann's Chinese Theatre 22 December in Hollywood, California. Williams is currently starring in the critically acclaimed film 'Patch Adams' about a doctor who uses humor to help heal his patients. AFP PHOTO/Vince BUCCI (Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
Arnold Schwarzenegger & Robin Williams during The 13th Annual Moving Picture Ball American Cinematheque Award Honoring Arnold Schwarzenegger at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, UNITED STATES: Academy Award winning actor Robin Williams signs autographs for fans as he arrives for the premiere of his new film, 'What Dreams May Come' 28 September in Beverly Hills, CA. The film, a romantic-fantasy based on the Richard Matheson novel, tells of one man's journey to other worlds to find the woman he loves. AFP PHOTO Vince BUCCI (Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
Off to the Emmys with my beautiful wife, Susan.
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Oscar winners Robin Williams (L), Best Supporting Actor and Jack Nicholson (R), Best Actor pose for photographers 23 March at the 70th Annual Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Williams won for his roll in 'Good Will Hunting' and Nicholson for 'As Good As It Gets.' (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Hector MATA (Photo credit should read HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
Robin Williams is covered in paint in a scene from the film 'What Dreams May Come', 1998. (Photo by Polygram Filmed Entertainment/Getty Images)
324574 35: Robin Williams stands with Matt Damon at the fourth annual Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremonies March 18, 1998 in Los Angeles, CA. Various actors and entertainers attended the ceremonies to honor the accomplishments of their fellow performers. (Photo by Russell Einhorn/Liaison)
FRIENDS -- 'The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion' Episode 24 -- Pictured: (l-r) Billy Crystal as Tim, Robin Williams as Thomas, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Nathan Lane and Robin Williams standing in pajamas on the porch in a scene from the film 'The Birdcage', 1996. (Photo by United Artists/Getty Images)
Bonnie Hunt, Bradley Pierce, Kirsten Dunst and Robin Williams hold each other in a scene from the film 'Jumanji', 1995. (Photo by TriStar/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 23: U.S. actor Robin Williams holds his Golden Globe after winning for best actor in a comedy for his role in 'Mrs. Doubtfire' 22 January 1994. The movie also won a Golden Globe for best comedy film. (Photo credit should read DAVID CRANE/AFP/Getty Images)
Robin Williams and Tim Robbins in a scene from the film 'Cadillac Man', 1990. (Photo by Orion Pictures/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 16: Robin Williams (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Getting ready for The Tonight Show with The Man, @jayleno. Jay got me my first paying stand-up job.
UNITED STATES - MARCH 16: Robin Williams (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 26: Robin Williams and Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013 on the CBS Television Network. (Photo by Heather Wines/CBS via Getty Images)