Boulevard, the fifth feature from director Dito Montiel, is an intimate character study. As such, it is but one among many. At festivals, in particular those with a bevy of American independent films, you can’t swing a cat without hitting an intimate character study. And so they try to differentiate themselves, sometimes through gimmicks and sometimes through good old-fashioned artistic vision. In the case of Boulevard the elevator pitch is this: Robin Williams is 60, married to a woman, and secretly gay. His name is Nolan and he has a well-paying but dull job in a small bank. Fair enough.
The dramatic conflict, therefore, is his discovery and subsequent acceptance of his homosexuality. It is perhaps tiring at this point to see yet another movie in which being gay is the primary, driving narrative force. It is no longer as interesting as Love Is Strange, for example, a drama that gets to establish the sexual orientation of its characters in the first scene and then move on to subtler themes. There’s still some room left for a film like Boulevard to say something new and interesting, but not much.
Unfortunately the script, penned by Douglas Soesbe, chooses to deepen the impact of its protagonist’s sexual crisis via another unfortunate cliche. Nolan picks up a young hustler named Leo (Roberto Aguire) on the titular Boulevard and takes him back to a seedy motel room. Yet when Leo begins to get undressed, Nolan stops him just after he takes off his shirt. Montiel chooses to cut away from the scene before showing any sex and the implication is that nothing much happened. In place of tawdry sex, Nolan seems intent on an emotional connection. Later on he’ll even give him a prepaid cell phone. This isn’t just about sexual discovery. Nolan, who has no children of his own, wants to save this young man whether or not he wants to be saved.
Herein lies the dramatic tension of the film. There are two concurrent dramas, each of them equally derivative. On the one hand Nolan persists in his attempts to force Leo into what he thinks would be a better life, taking him out to dinner and getting into fights with his ostensible pimp. On the other, he tries hiding this affair from his wife (Kathy Baker) by inventing obvious lies and hiding away in his separate bedroom. It’s all a little sordid.
Leo and the wife (whose name is Joy) are important, but the star of the show is Nolan. As such, Boulevard can’t be judged without taking into account Williams’s performance, inconveniently the most frustratingly bare element in the film. Williams is good, to the extent that such an adjective means anything. He shuffles about the office and the bedroom, always on the verge of cracking open. It’s easy to believe that he talked himself into falling in love with Joy, that he once had dreams.
Yet there’s something a little off, and it is not all the actor’s fault. Boulevard is a little too afraid of noise, a bit too intimidated by its own lechery. Montiel and Soesbe resist putting Nolan into sexual situations, stressing his misguided but growing love for Leo. This backfires. Williams doesn’t come off as shy and guarded in these moments, but rather as something of a creep. A lack of sexuality, particularly in a narrative of sexual awakening, hints at either unsettling emotional coldness or a lack of depth of character. Nolan is little more than the suggestion of a man. With such a flimsy core it is no wonder that the film begins to droop around him.
The Upside: Kathy Baker is excellent in a limited role, stoking our continued indignation that she deserves better.
The Downside: No matter how hard Robin Williams tries, he can’t break through a script built from two cliched relationships and a frustratingly safe protagonist.
On the Side: Boulevard was shot by cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, a regular collaborator of Park Chan-wook who directed both Stoker and Oldboy. This is his first entirely American production.