It’s been nearly a year since we lost Robin Williams to a long-standing bout of depression that eventually led to his suicide. This led to an enormous outcry of grief all over the celebrity and social media world from those who had grown up on his movies, television and standup and caused many to reflect on this talent that we had perhaps taken for granted. No one can deny that his movies weren’t always diamonds, but his work in them was almost always admirable and memorable. The fact that he spent the last couple of years of his life giving great performances in terrible little-seen direct to VOD films (The Angriest Man In Brooklyn, A Merry Friggin’ Christmas), with the occasional cameo in something truly awful (The Big Wedding), is a rather tragic thought. But fortunately, with Dito Montiel’s newly released film Boulevard, Williams goes out strong, if not quite on top.
Williams plays Nolan, a man who’s stuck in your typical indie-film marriage, i.e. loveless. He’s friendly and cordial with his wife, but is clearly missing something vital. One night he’s driving home and spots a group of gay hookers on the sidewalk and after nearly accidentally running one over, he befriends him and starts to confront his closeted homosexuality.
He gets advice from his friend Winston, played by Bob Odenkirk, who brings all the levity and spontaneity that you’d hope for from the guy who plays Saul Goodman in a role that could have felt a tad superfluous. He’s clearly only in the movie to give Nolan a person off which to bounce his thoughts, but with an actor like Odenkirk in the role, it’s hard to complain about such matters.
If you feel like you’ve seen this film before, you probably have. We’ve seen this suburbia set-up many times over the last couple of decades, so when a film goes for this, you really have to count on strong performances and interesting surprises to make it worth your while. Thanks to Williams’ tender, vulnerable, aching performance, the film always stays on the side of watchable, and often fascinating. An electronic synthesizer score often tends to call too much attention to itself and distract from the fine performances by not just Williams, but also Roberto Aguire as Leo, the young man whom Nolan befriends. Fortunately though, once the film firmly establishes what it’s about, such distracting little director quirks either ceased altogether, or just stopped bothering me.
Certainly for someone like me, a huge fan of his work, it’s impossible to watch Williams play such a sad, morose character and not be reminded of what happened shortly after this film was finished. It’s just unavoidable. But thankfully, that would just be me reading too much into the story. The man was an actor, and an excellent one at that. Remove all of the comedies from his resume, and you’re still left with one of the most impressive collections of dramatic performances in recent memory. This film is no exception. Every time he smiles to avoid confronting the pain and confusion that Nolan feels so strongly, we don’t question him in the slightest bit. When we see him look at Leo with his expression of sorrow and pity, it’s impossible not to feel right there with him.
It may not be best film of Williams’ career, and it’s a real shame that he never experienced the ultra renaissance that I’m sure was on the horizon for him, but as a film for an actor of this stature to go out on, he could have done much worse than Boulevard.
Boulevard opens in the San Francisco Bay Area on July 17, 2015 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. Check your local listings.