One of Robin Williams's last onscreen performances is also one of his best | Bleader

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

One of Robin Williams's last onscreen performances is also one of his best

Posted By on 09.08.15 at 01:30 PM

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click to enlarge Roberto Aguire and Williams star in Boulevard.
  • Roberto Aguire and Williams star in Boulevard.

Robin Williams had a knack for playing lonely introverts, as he demonstrated in Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo, The Night Caller, World’s Greatest Dad, The Face of Love, and one of his final films, Boulevard, which is newly available on DVD. These movies vary in overall quality, yet Williams delivered committed performances in all of them, conveying the weight of his characters’ inner turmoil through careful body language and quiet line readings. It’s common knowledge that Williams battled depression for much of his life, and it’s hard not to read these performances as autobiographical. In these films, it feels as though the comedian is shedding his well-known manic persona to reveal the insecurities underneath. He could sometimes come off as inert when playing serious, but even then he generated a bathetic fascination, suggesting that when he wasn’t actively trying to please an audience there was nothing there but crippling sadness.

In Boulevard Williams looks enervated from the start. His character, Nolan Mack, clearly experiences no joy in his life, which has long since lapsed into tired routine. He spends his days working at a bank, where he’s held the same midlevel position for 25 years, and his nights sitting quietly with his wife (Kathy Baker). Their marriage is childless and possibly sexless—they sleep in separate rooms, and rarely do we see them get close enough to actually touch. A few times a week he visits his elderly father, who lies bedridden and unable to speak in a dim-looking nursing home. Nolan’s “conversations” with his father feel sadly similar to the ones he has with his wife and his sole friend, a pompous English professor played by a miscast Bob Odenkirk; Nolan sits passively with everyone, occasionally muttering something innocuous to remind the world he’s still there.

One night Nolan picks up a male prostitute, Leo, when he’s driving home from visiting his father. He takes the young man to a motel and begins to talk at length about his childhood. The movie doesn’t show whether the two men have sex, but that seems beside the point—what matters is that Nolan is so desperate for someone to whom he can speak honestly that he’d pay for the experience. Williams doesn’t exude any sense of sexual attraction to the younger man—indeed he tries to create distance between himself and the hustler as much as possible. (Only halfway through the movie do we find out that Nolan is in fact gay, but even then it's unclear as to whether he desires Leo.) It’s as though he wants the stranger to recognize how isolated he feels, so that he doesn’t have to carry the knowledge alone. Williams can’t entirely suppress his comic imagination during the characters’ first encounter. When he fumbles with the motel coffee maker, he lets slip the ad-libbed one-liner, “I guess this means my barista days are numbered.” The line doesn’t register as funny, but rather as a way for Nolan to cover up his embarrassment.

Boulevard charts Nolan’s growing relationship with the prostitute, in whom he takes a fatherly interest, and his efforts to hide the relationship from his wife and colleagues. As in previous films Fighting and The Son of No One, director Dito Montiel creates a noirish mood, staging much of the action at night and drawing out silences to generate suspense. In fact Boulevard often feels like a crime film, as Nolan comes to regard his secret as a personal crime. Though his wife doesn’t press him to find out where he goes at night, the guilt weighs heavily on him all the same. He starts to lose focus at his job and has trouble keeping up appearances in his home life—Montiel and screenwriter Douglas Soesbe raise the possibility that he might go mad under the pressure, and Williams reinforces it with his impressive, tightly wound performance, which sits front and center of every scene.



The film doesn’t achieve much sense of catharsis, despite a hasty resolution that frees Nolan of his problems. Maybe that’s because the filmmakers so excel at conveying the character’s inner conflict—often at the expense of dramatic momentum—that any resolution would feel anticlimactic. Boulevard is essentially a mood piece, the mood being one of quiet despair. It’s a state of being that Williams clearly understood well—if nothing else, the movie serves as a testament to how well he understood it.

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