In life, things are taken from you. When you experience loss of a spouse or maybe a pet or even an acquaintance, you struggle to grab onto something solid that makes you whole, just as your world is being chipped away. The opening moments of “Boulevard” find Robin Williams‘ Nolan tending to his bed-ridden father as the image fades in and out. The effect is not over some life-or-death last minute procedure, but of his debates with the doctor over his father’s caffeine intake. Often, what is taken from us occurs in the most mundane of ways.
Director Dito Montiel scales back for his latest, centered on Nolan, a sixty year old bank employee not at all like previous Montiel protagonists played by Channing Tatum and Liam Hemsworth. Nolan’s lifestyle is presented matter-of-factly, his marriage to a loving wife and a comfortable existence in the suburbs distracting from the fact that he and his wife sleep in separate beds. Montiel spends an inordinate amount of time depicting Nolan’s nondescript lifestyle, perhaps pressing some notes a bit too hard, like when Nolan is almost completely silent during a dinner party. It tips his hand that a twist is about to occur, but this isn’t one we exactly expect.
In a fit of loneliness, Nolan picks up a young street hustler named Leo (Roberto Aguire). The urge to give is strong: Leo is pencil-thin, his ratty wardrobe draped over his ribcage like a towel rack. Nolan feels protective, the son he never had. He’s also aroused. Montiel never seems too interested in pursuing how these emotions intersect, instead cherrypicking Nolan’s attitude on a moment by moment basis. Williams’ performance, meanwhile, finds the depth within these sentiments, locating the heartbreak in Nolan’s fatherly concern, and the defeat within being attracted to him while refusing to cheat on his wife. It’s nuanced work, Williams finding the mature self-discovery in a man finally getting a small taste of what’s been denied to him: back at home he can only meekly answer his wife’s future plans with, “Do we really want to go on a cruise?”
Nolan soon cannot help himself, finding new ways to leave home for the night to see the young man. The nights get longer, and often more dangerous: it’s a mixture of shame and whimsy when Nolan turns to the mirror to marvel at his first shiner, earned from a beating at the hands of Leo’s pimp. It’s most unfortunate that Nolan is also a terrible liar: wife Joy knows there’s an affair of sorts going on. This is a standout role for Kathy Baker as the light of this household, lately the nightlight. When she reaches a breaking point, the two of them have it out as people who love each other and simply cannot reconcile their philosophies. Baker in this scene is a whirlwind, turning the long-suffering wife archetype on its ear. The film focuses on only a small portion of their life together, but it’s Baker’s conviction that reverses the audience’s thinking in making it seem as if their conventional power dynamic has been heavily mutating through the years.
Bob Odenkirk, who has been carving out a helluva run lately in serious supporting roles, brings considerable levity to his scenes with the somber Williams: his mostly self-serving advice seems peppered not only with his own regrets, but also halfhearted caveats. You wish there was more of him and his partner played by the striking Eleonore Hendricks (“Nancy, Please”) as a contrast with Williams and Baker, particularly considering Odenkirk’s tweed jacket intellectual teaches literature, while Nolan comes home to find Joy watching Godard’s “Masculin Feminin.” There could be more done to establish Nolan’s inner life: his preference are westerns, and he lights up when Leo gets him one as a gift.
Ultimately, that sort of mirroring in some movies starts to become too distracting from the human element, which is more than present in “Boulevard.” Nolan’s new coupling comes from a selfish emotional need, as he has little-to-nothing in common with Leo. But Williams and Baker clearly have chemistry, even if it’s not sexual, making this an arrangement out of necessity that minimalizes Joy. Nolan won’t fully open up to Leo, instead masking his insecurities with kindness and contributions, and Williams plays these scenes as if his wife were constantly in the back of his mind. Montiel’s been a New York filmmaker with a chip on his shoulder until recently. Here, he reinvents himself, dialling down the machismo of early releases to craft a story of tremendous compassion. Though it lacks complexity, this is a real meat-and-potatoes genre that re-establishes Montiel as a filmmaker with new moves still up his sleeve. [B+]