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For those of us still mourning Robin Williams’ death, Boulevard is almost too painful to watch. The film is strong on its own terms, a slow but compelling emotional drama about a closeted gay man coming to terms with his identity. That the protagonist is played Williams, giving one of the best and most vulnerable performances of his career, adds a heartbreaking subtext. It’s a film about second chances and finding peace late in life, which we know Williams never did, setting up an agonizing interplay between the character’s first tentative steps into the world and the actor’s tragic final step out of it.
Nolan Mack (Williams) is a married, middle-aged man whose life has been dedicated to the art of risk aversion. He has worked at the same bank for a quarter century. When his boss raises the idea of a promotion, instead of celebrating, Mack panics at the possibility of a more public position. Prim and polite, never offensive, Mack has only a single close friend (Bob Odenkirk), and he’s locked in a genial but apparently platonic marriage to Joy (Kathy Baker), who sleeps in a separate bedroom.
The role serves as a winning culmination of Williams’ career. For decades onscreen, he has alternated between gentle (Good Will Hunting) and manic (Good Morning Vietnam), but Boulevard ties these dichotomous sides of his persona into a knot. Like a duck on a pond, Nolan is calm on the surface, but working frantically underneath just to stay afloat. He is a kind, generous husband and reliable employee, but these virtues, while not quite inauthentic, have been cultivated to protect him from scrutiny. Soft, subtle, and psychologically astute, it is one of Williams’ most complete performances.
Mack’s truth finally forces its way into the light when Nolan literally bumps into Leo, a young sex worker (Roberto Aguire). The two go to a hotel—not to have sex, but to talk—and what they talk about doesn’t matter much. Nolan is just trying to get comfortable with another gay person, and he uses Leo, who is upfront about his sexuality but reticent to share the rest of his life, to that end. They strike up a tenuous friendship, which unfolds too predictably; we know that Nolan’s two worlds will collide at some point and the truth will come out, and director Dito Montiel struggles to transcend the script’s clichés.
But this is Williams’ show, and he remains captivating to the last. In his final starring role, Williams eschews all of the comic tics and hyperactive monologues on which he built his film career. It’s tempting to say that, in Boulevard, he’s finally revealed himself to us, but that’s probably an oversimplification; posthumous performances often inspire a critic to generalize. Still, it’s a challenge to hear Mack’s dialogue (“Maybe it’s never too late to finally start living the life you really want”) and not feel Williams’ pain. That his offscreen tragedy elevates Boulevard from the generic to the sublime is a complicated truth to grapple with, as surely no one would trade good art for human life. Boulevard forces viewers to deal with this intersection of life and art in all its rich, uncomfortable complexity.
Boulevard opens July 17 at West End Cinema.