Sunday, September 27, 2015

Catching Up: "Boulevard"

 3.5 / 5 

Boulevard is the final dramatic film starring Robin Williams, and it's an unexpectedly fitting bookend for an film acting career that began with the sprawling, messy, whimsical, wonderful epic The World According to Garp in 1982.

That movie explored the idea that life is an unpredictable adventure, that nothing is more important than personal (and sexual) liberty.  It was big, bold and loud.

Boulevard is small, meek and quiet.  It explores the idea that most people don't know what their lives are about.  Garp was an ambitious novel.  Boulevard is a modest short story.  As Garp, Williams was exuberant.  As Boulevard's humble banker Nolan Mack, Williams is so restrained he seems to be in pain -- which is exactly the movie's point.

Boulevard begins by showing us Nolan's little life.  He lives with his wife of who-knows-how-long, a perfectly lovely and fiercely intelligent woman with the ironic name Joy, who's played by the always-spot-on Kathy Baker, one of those actresses you've seen a hundred times, never quite in the same way.

Nolan works in a bank.  He likes the people who come to him for money.  If he seems just a little jealous of his latest clients, a gay couple buying a home, it's because he is.  Nolan, we come to find, has known of his own homosexuality since he was 12.  That knowledge hasn't changed the course of his life -- he got a degree, took a job, took a wife, bought a house, very probably in that order.  Now, he and his wife sleep in separate rooms.  "Separate beds, separate rooms, separate lives," she says to him one night, not in anger.  "How much more separate can we be?"

A lot, it seems.  Nolan's wife does not accompany him to the hospital, where his father is dying.  No doubt, he has told her not to bother herself.  So, she's not driving with him the night he maneuvers the car through the seedy part of town, where the hookers line up.

By mistake, he nearly hits one of them, but it's not a movie meet-cute moment.  It's just one of those moments in life that leads to another, and another, and another, and pretty soon Nolan's life is moving down roads he didn't know existed.

The hooker's name is Leo.  He's played by Robert Aguire in a performance noteworthy for the way he brings simultaneous clarity and confusion.  Leo is as unaware of a world outside his own as Nolan is. Nolan is captivated by the younger man.  He begins to have a sort of affair, but it's been so long since Nolan experienced what Garp's Jenny Fields would call "lust," he has no idea how to begin.

Nolan becomes infatuated with Leo.  He can't bring himself to admit that he's in love with a prostitute; it's not the sex-for-money part that stuns him -- it's the love part.

His wife suspects.  But, then, his wife has probably suspected a lot of things about Nolan, maybe even about herself.  Boulevard is filled with people who have talked themselves into their lives.

By and large, Boulevard is a quiet, clearly examined character study.  Only toward the very end does it generate some much-needed drama in a brief but memorable scene in which Joy finally asks Nolan to explain himself.  He can't, so she does it for him.  It's a scene of undeniable power, well-written and ferociously acted, and can be compared favorably to the short-but-mighty scene in Network for which Beatrice Straight won the Academy Award.  Joy lets loose on her husband, but not in the way, or with the conclusions, you might imagine.  The one scene of great drama in Boulevard does not betray the bottled-up, repressed emotions of the rest of the film -- though it does expand on them.

Williams, in turn, brings a scared hesitancy to Nolan, a man who now knows what direction he's moving -- whether he likes it or not.

In its final moments, Boulevard tries too hard for a happy end to this unhappy domestic drama.  It's nice to imagine that Nolan will find himself, that Joy will be resilient, but Boulevard insists on showing this moment of optimism.  But it's less effective than it might be, because Boulevard begins with grown-up characters realizing they still have a lot to learn about life.  The learning will go on for a long time, can't be tacked on by a happy coda that makes Nolan and Joy both look a little too much like Mary Tyler Moore about to throw her hat in the air.

Hat tosses aren't needed in Boulevard.  It's a movie that supposes a kiss between an estranged husband and wife can be just as valid as a kiss between two men who aren't sure yet whether they're in love, or whether they ever will be.  They're kisses stolen in the moments between emotion, and those are the moments Boulevard is best at exploring.

Viewed Sept. 27, 2015 -- On Demand

9 p.m.


  1. I am Douglas Soesbe, the writer of Boulevard, and I think John's review is quite perceptive. I thank him.

  2. Wow, thank you, Douglas. What a nice surprise to get this message.