Robin Williams played a lot of sad, wistful characters before the abrupt end to his career with his suicide nearly a year ago. Many of these titles went a long way toward broadening his range. “Boulevard,” which premiered months before Williams’ death but opens in limited release this week, has the opposite effect — it reduces William’s somber talent to formula. Arriving so close to a painful anniversary, the shortcomings of “Boulevard” highlight the broader setbacks that plagued Williams’ career during its final years.
Playing a closeted gay banker who takes an almost paternal interest in neighborhood hustler Leo (Roberto Aguirre), Williams does what he can as Nolan, a man trapped in a loveless marriage and trying his best to keep his real urges a secret. Director Dito Montiel captures Nolan’s recurring attempts to foster a seemingly platonic relationship with Leo, nabbing the young man from the streets and taking him to a hotel for tender late night conversations, with a palpable tension that maintains a degree of intrigue for some time.
Unfortunately, the premise grows increasingly tedious and one-note, ultimately arriving at a messy resolution. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (who more recently shot the Sundance-winning “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) bathes the bleak events in dark yellow hues that draw out the melodramatic nature of the material without overplaying it, but Douglas Soesbe’s screenplay rarely manages to hit any surprising beats as the scenario crawls along to its inevitable conclusion.
Hints of a Better Role
Williams’ face, however, tells a very different story. Often framed in close up, his eyes sagging into long features as he gazes at a world beyond his grasp, Williams endows Nolan with a tender, forlorn look that epitomizes his screen presence in his later years — or, at least, should have. In his standup, Williams’ vibrant stage presence was always undercut by a certain harsh assessment of life’s rocky paths, but it took longer to find that groove in the movies. Even as he emerged as one of America’s most beloved entertainers, he quietly eked out an alternate path with gentler and often dejected characters in movies such as “Seize the Day” and “The Best of Times,” finding clarity for that alternate mode with “Dead Poets Society” and showing even greater range in “Good Morning Vietnam.”
The nineties gave us Williams in an explosion of diverse roles, with the chameleonesque turn in “Mrs. Doubtfire” on one side of the spectrum and “The Fisher King” on the other, though it was his Oscar win for “Good Will Hunting” near the end of the decade that solidified perceptions of Williams as much more than a funny man. Instead, he was a man who mined humor from sadness and vica versa.
But the next 20 years barely provided a platform for any of that. Whether voluntarily or otherwise, Williams struggled to find many projects that matched his particular capacity for embodying loneliness with such remarkable depth. With the exception of eerily memorable turns in “One Hour Photo” and “Insomnia,” Williams’ roles in the new millennium were mainly based around reductive versions of a funny man persona that had long ago evolved into something quite different. “Night at the Museum” and “Old Dogs” don’t so much star Williams as they put him in air quotes.
To find the last truly great Williams roles requires going back to his delightful bit in the prologue to the 2012 “Louie” episode “Barney/Never,” where an embellished version of the actor meets his fellow standup at a funeral and they agree to visit each other’s graves if they both die alone. (Eerily, Williams’ career highlights frequently dealt with the anxieties surrounding death.) Before that, Williams delivered his most wondrously subversive turn in longtime pal Bobcat Goldthwait’s “World’s Greatest Dad,” a savage look at literary aspirations in which Williams plays a school teacher who uses his son’s suicide to find national fame.
Ominous foreshadowing notwithstanding, “World’s Greatest Dad” remains one of the more underappreciated American comedies of the past 15 years. It also points to Williams’ potential for excelling in black comedies, and makes you wonder why he didn’t tackle more of them, settling instead for alternating between big studio efforts and sullen, unimaginative indie dramas like “Boulevard.”
For every moment that Williams manages to make his character seem like a real man tortured by his repressed ways, the movie falsifies that feeling with stilted dialogue and drab plotting. By the time he’s accused of “keeping up this ridiculous pretense,” it’s a long overdue assessment. But that’s partly because “Boulevard” doesn’t even give Williams the opportunity to convince the audience that Nolan is gay. Much like last year’s “The Imitation Game,” for all the sympathy “Boulevard” displays toward its lead, it never once shows him intimately engaged with another man. “It’s never too late to get what you want in life,” Nolan asserts during one moment of clarity, but mostly just illustrates the inverse of that statement.
As a whole, “Boulevard” gives us the watered-down glimpses of Williams’ greatness that have sadly become all too familiar. Beyond that, they point to a career perpetually trapped in mid-bloom. Witnessing another downbeat Williams role in undercooked material, it’s hard not to imagine what he could have achieved working alongside filmmakers known for experimenting with melancholy to both poetic and humorous ends, from Todd Solondz to Sweden’s Roy Andersson (whose tragically funny “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence,” out now, has a very Williamsesque view of life).
Instead, Williams’ filmography is being capped by projects that illustrate the disconnect plaguing the end of his career. “Boulevard” marks Williams’ penultimate theatrical release; his final one, “Absolutely Anything,” looks like the bitterest pill of them all. A goofy comedy starring Simon Pegg as a man endowed with the ability to control the world around him, it finds Williams providing the voice of Pegg’s dog. However the movie turns out, Williams’ final role forms a walking metaphor for the frustrations that followed the actor to the grave. No matter how much he barks or bites, he’s still just a lovable pet.
“Boulevard” opens in New York this Friday and Los Angeles on July 17th along with other markets.