It's heartbreaking that, in his last dramatic film, Robin Williams plays depressed and repressed, burdened by secrets, a man incapable of connecting. In Boulevard, Williams invests himself in the role of a closeted Nashville bank manager married to a woman for whom he feels only sexless affection. Clearly, the actor was moved by the emotions he was performing, but the yearning we see onscreen is uncomfortably dual: As often happened when the comic turned serious, you can sense Williams's need to connect, sometimes as powerfully as the character's. Williams endeavors to become this man, but his impulse is to shut down, to make himself quiet and inexpressive — to strip away who Williams is rather than to build himself up into someone else.
That means he never gets us to stop seeing the actor we've known for years, the way John Cusack managed when playing Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy. And that makes this last turn of his hurt all the more: His empathy and humanity are apparent at every moment, and in individual scenes, especially with Kathy Baker as the wife, he glances against painful truths about human behavior. But mostly, as his banker putters about Nashville in a past-its-prime Mercedes, it feels like we're watching Robin Williams playing sad, not Robin Williams playing a specific person. I spent the movie aching for its star, not its characters.
Director Dito Montiel aspires to sensitive drama, but Douglas Soesbe's script too often mires Williams in pat situations. That banker, Nolan, cruises past street hustlers when he visits his father in a downtown hospital. One night, Nolan clips a male prostitute (Roberto Aguire) with his car — and winds up, out of overeager kindness, giving the kid a ride to a motel. That leads to one of those nice-guy-wastes-a-sex-worker's-time scenes familiar from too many other movies: Nice-guy Nolan will pay extra just to talk and look.
The two develop a cash-based, not-quite-sexual relationship. Lonely Nolan, though, quickly gets too invested. He confronts his crush's pimp, shouting, "Is violence your answer to everything?" — a line no actor could make convincing. Meanwhile, some I Dream of Jeannie story beats pile up: Nolan is up for a promotion, and should be prepping for a make-or-break dinner with some bigwigs, and just guess who happens to be in the fancy-pants restaurant the night Nolan takes his secret streetwalker in for a bite? It's hard to credit that, after a quarter-century of dutiful work at this bank, Nolan's entire career hinges on a single dinner — or that he would be soundly upbraided, as he is in the film, for coming in just a little bit late just one time.
But there is some strong material, here. Bob Odenkirk makes a specific, peppery character out of Nolan's lit-prof best friend, despite the obviousness of the writing: "Remember how we were gonna take on the Big Apple?" Odenkirk has to say, early on, to let us know that stubbed-out Nolan once had dreams. He adds: "But then you found Joy. Literally." Joy, of course, is the wife, played with quiet, escalating despair by Baker. Joy knows that Nolan lies to her about where he's been and what he's doing, and Nolan knows that she knows. Their finest moment is one of Williams's finest on film: After several reels of simmering tension, Nolan lets down his guard, just a bit, and apologizes to her for a small fib from a few days before.
"I'm sorry I lied about it," he says.
"I know," she responds, with a warm, pained nod. Then they look back at the TV.
That small lie is covering up the big lie, the one neither character dares look at head on. It's the most complex moment in the movie, perhaps the most challenging and subtle one, too. It's a testament to what Williams could do that it's the one in which he finally connects.