Boulevard -- a Film Review

Boulevard, one of Robin Williams' last films, in which he stars as a sad, crimped man, has had a helluva time finding its way to a theater near us, reports the Mirror way back last October 2014.

The film, which mysteriously got positive nods at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York (and Outfest in LA) before comedian and actor Williams took his own life in August, tells the gloomy story of a married banker, Nolan (Robin Williams) who breaks from what Henry David Thoreau deftly called a “life of quiet desperation” in search of intimacy (or something) with rough street trade -- a hustler named Leo (Roberto Aguire) -- in his later years.

We write “mysteriously” because from the first moment the film opens on a grim-faced Williams driving his grey sedan in his grey city and his grey life, the movie exposes the third rail in two ways. We find little that redeems this film from unalleviated discomfort on every level. Few at the screening seemed uplifted or charmed by the morose piece directed by veteran director Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints 2006). That emptiness and equivocal response explains for the film looked at a bleak future.

Though Williams after completing the movie commented that to him the film was a “sad, beautiful story,” the other glaring reason for not enjoying this film is that frame for frame, no audience member can forget that this talented, colorful actor did himself in a few weeks after the end of the shoot. Either you feel voyeuresque watching him alive when we know what he did to himself, or we are consumed with a creepy Weltschmerz, rerunning those headlines

So the disquiet of this fundamentally pessimistic life, closeted by his own fears and perhaps his tough, dying father -- for whom Nolan cares when he isn’t at the soul-destroying bank job or tending to his loving but unintimate wife (Kathy Baker plays his sensitive, hurt-filled wife, ironically named Joy), is reflected in the hearts of viewers, who can’t stop recalling that shocking suicide so recently ago. Did making this unremittingly uncomfortable tale add to his private despair? Did it stoke his desire to end all tomorrows?

The marriage of Nolan and Joy, so far from the model literature and life have imagined for millions, is loving, but reflects what we ought to know: no one really knows the nature of others’ relationships. What we assume is sensual and intense may be, in fact, asexual and all but residual.

The acting is superior, the little-town feel is accurate, and the ensemble project that mittel American character that big city dwellers don’t comprehend. That limited horizon. That cautious coloring inside the lines, lest our neighbors “talk.” For all the scenes with Leo and his skeevy pimp, there is no actual sex of any kind, as Nolan cannot betray his wife, whom he does love, even though  they have for years slept apart, have separate bedrooms, lead separate lives. There are far too many extreme close-ups on Robin Williams' face, and the music behind many scenes can be distracting.

It’s not a beddy-bye narrative, as the scriptwriter fails to provide a rationale for why Nolan should be so wrenchingly self-abusive, instantaneously with this troubled hustler, who returns very little for all the money and gifts and caring bestowed on him by the older man. The writer infuses his characters with humanity, but implausible reactions, in the case of the increasingly agitated protagonist.

Coming to mind very early on, in fact, was the bleak 1910 verse by Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Miniver Cheevy” --  a hopeless soul who spends his hours obsessed with what might have been if only he had been born earlier. Where Miniver drinks to drown his unredeemed, unlovely life, Nolan  takes to the surly, unloving street rat, Leo.

The poem frames a plausible rationale:

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,

Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;

He wept that he was ever born,

And he had reasons.

Even closer to the ironic take on men “leading lives of quiet desperation” is another Robinson poem we devoured in high school,  “Richard Cory” -- which, however, ends more bleakly than does the tacked-on, unlikely ending of Boulevard:

So on we worked and waited for the light, 

And went without the meat and cursed the bread, 

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, 

Went home and put a bullet in his head.

Unlike Richard Cory, though, whose suicide isn’t necessarily a shock to those in his town, but a source of morbid fascination and gossip, the suicide of Robin Williams was a shock, and resonated across the Hollywood firmament with disbelief.

Though Boulevard is the final film in which Williams plays a suppressed character, there are three still unreleased films starring the legendary icon that have not yet been released: Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, A Merry Friggin’ Christmas, and the comedy Absolutely Anything. Let’s pray this trio of valedictories do not evoke anhedonic references by Thoreau and Robinson.