Robin Williams, who took his own life last August, had been very busy the year before his death, despite reportedly suffering from severe depression. He made several movies. Sadly, “Boulevard,” the last one in which he starred, is not his best.
In Dito Montiel’s treacly, programmatic film, Williams succumbs to a recurring neediness, earnestness, and sentimentality. An early shot reveals the actor in the sad clown mode that he never abandons. As Nolan, a meek banker, he drives home after a visit with his semi-comatose father in the hospital. He tools down the seedier streets of Nashville at night, meekly glancing at the rough trade. Face fixed in a frown, eyes sheepish and beaten, he is looking for more abuse, denial, and debasement.
He sure finds it. Married to the joyless Joy (Kathy Baker) for 40 years, he’s spent decades toiling at a strip mall bank to establish himself as a respectable, mousy member of the bourgeoisie. For excitement he and Joy have dinner with his professor friend, Winston (Bob Odenkirk), and Winston’s latest girlfriend to talk about old times and kids these days. One of his students, Winston reports with smug incredulity, didn’t even know who Rushdie was! Later, Nolan and Joy watch Godard’s “Masculine Feminine” (1966) on the tube (without subtitles!) and he recalls wistfully how they first watched it back in the ’70s and afterward she explained the film to him scene by scene.
No wonder he wants to escape.
He finds the means to do so when he takes a turn down one of the streets in that Nashville red light district and literally runs into Leo (Roberto Aguire), a wispy, teenage male prostitute. Nolan opens up to Leo’s youth and vulnerability with a creepy ardor. It combines paternal affection with repressed lust and a cringe-making clinginess. He takes Leo to a motel and offers him money to listen to him ramble about watching westerns as a kid. The encounters may be chaste, but Leo earns every penny.
The relationship disrupts the orderliness of his life, and Nolan keeps waking up and looking at a watch or clock and realizing he missed an appointment or forgot when his wife was coming home. He keeps getting busted and apologizes with dismaying obsequiousness. Hard to watch, and not in the way intended.
Williams was at his best when he let the anarchy burst through the restraints of audience expectations. He did it as the voice of the genie in “Aladdin” (1992), the killer in “Insomnia” (2002), and the stalker in “One Hour Photo” (2002).
And he even once mastered the desperation caricatured in “Boulevard,” putting in his finest performance as the self-destructive Tommy Wilhelm in the little-seen TV adaptation of Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day” (1986). In it, the pain he expresses seems genuine; in “Boulevard,” it seems to be a mask concealing the genuine pain beneath.