Robin Williams gives one of his finest performances in BOULEVARD, a film that allows him to explore the profound loneliness of a gentle man living a painful lie. Alas, it is a story far too fraught with convenient coincidences to be much more than a vehicle for Williams’ considerable depth and humanity. It is elevated, too, by DIto Montiel’s sensitive and perceptive direction that enhances the nuances of Williams’ performance.
Williams is Nolan Mack, a mild-mannered, genuinely sweet man with a phobia about causing other people pain. This is why he has remained closeted since realizing he was gay when he was 12. Now 60, he has a wife, Joy (Kathy Baker) he loves, and who loves him despite separate bedrooms, a loyal friend, Winston (Bob Odenkirk) whose conversations are frequent yet never broach anything important, and a secure bank job where he is being pressured after 25 years into being made a branch manager. Nolan smiles, does his duty, including visiting the infirm father with whom he was never close, and never complains aloud about the quiet desperation lurking within. Until, that is, he succumbs to the temptation of cruising the rent boys along a seedy stretch of downtown. There he almost runs over Leo (Roberto Aguire), and agrees to give the lovely, lissome young man a ride. Ride means something else to Leo, and after an awkward trip to a motel, Nolan is courting Leo with an old-fashioned elegance, paying him for his time, but never doing more than talking while also fretting about his general welfare, confusing Leo but not putting him off.
The new secret life is not lost on Joy, who does not confront Nolan about his strange new behavior. Nor is it lost on his boss, when Nolan is no longer the reliable cog in the bank’s machine, nor on Winston, who, unlike Joy, calls Nolan on the feeble excuse Nolan gives for his black eye, actually received when defending Leo from his pimp.
The film is at its best when it focuses on the conversations people have when they want to talk about something else. Joy’s persistence in wanting to go on another kind of cruise with Nolan that is really about what is happening to the careful equilibrium of separate lives they have cultivated; Nolan sharing memories of his childhood with Leo instead of pouring out a lifetime of longing to him. These are sharp and heartbreaking in their desperation. So too is Williams, confronted with what he most wants, unable to process it completely, and finally losing his head as well as his heart. There is nothing melodramatic, even in a one-sided conversation with his invalid father about the moment Nolan realized he was gay, and that there was nothing he could do about it, either to embrace it, or to make it go away. The pain is palpable in the anguish on Williams’ face, but the voice never cracks even as Nolan fights to keep it steady. He is, to the last, unwilling to cause a scene, to make anyone more uncomfortable than absolutely necessary.
Alas, there are too many accidental meetings between Nolan’s two worlds. His boss appears as Nolan is treating Leo to dinner at an upscale restaurant; Winston drops by unannounced at Nolan’s office just as Leo, too, unexpectedly appears; Nolan gets an emergency call he can’t ignore just as he’s leaving for the most important dinner of his professional life. As plot points, one must grudgingly allow for their necessity, but one wishes they had been handled with more finesse.
There is a poignant irony in BOULEVARD that takes on an unintentional significance now that Williams is gone. His character is talking about the death of his mother and says that some people leave and it just doesn’t seem fair. No, it’s not. Being deprived of the performances Williams would have given in the future, and the lack of his radiant presence in the world really doesn’t seem fair. Any more than that this mixed blessing of a film is his last.