“Are you happy?” asks Nolan Mack’s boss at the bank branch where he’s worked for 26 years. Ironically, that scene was filmed a year before Robin Williams’ death, but it’s what many viewers will be wondering about the real life Williams as they view his last on-screen performance. You can’t sit down to watch Boulevard without the anticipation of seeing some small sign that Williams was months away from tragically taking his own life.
Be careful what you wish for, though, because Williams’ restrained, delicate performance serves up a character whose internal torment fills every inch of the big screen. You may be looking for a sign, but you get hit full on with a Mack truck of struggle and heartbreaking sadness. His performance left me wondering if the funny man we all (thought we) knew and loved, is closer to the quiet, pensive characters he has so beautifully gifted us with over the years.
Williams plays Nolan Mack, a man who has repressed his homosexuality since the age of 12. We are introduced to him at the age of 60, in a stagnant job, a safe marriage, and providing care for his dying father. On his way to the nursing home one evening, he makes a u-turn and picks up a young male prostitute. What develops is an awkward relationship between an older man, uncertain of how to fulfill an aching emptiness, and a lost street kid, both yearning for a father, lover, and friend.
What may be overshadowed by Williams’ last on-screen performance, is relative newcomer Roberto Aguire’s turn as Leo, the young male prostitute. Keep an eye out for him in the future. Additionally, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s unique perspective subtly, but beautifully, added to the tension between the characters. Almost every scene was shot in “thirds” – that is, it was like looking at a painting where the frame of reference is a balance of 1/3. However, each shot was also just a slight bit slanted. Where a counter top should naturally have been parallel to the bottom of the screen, it was at a 15° angle. As was Nolan Mack’s life, the visual of the movie was just a little off. It wasn’t distracting, but obvious once you noticed. (As an aside, I couldn’t help but laugh thinking that it would be a struggle for Wes Anderson to sit through this entire movie!)
I was fortunate to see a Q&A with the screenwriter (who himself came out later in life) and he made the comment that this isn’t a “coming out” story, but a journey of “letting go.” It’s not a plot driven movie, and we’re not given a tidy, wrapped up ending. It’s more of an exploration of how the dreams of our youth often take a backseat to a safe and expected life. We’re left wondering why we hang on to things that don’t bring us joy. How much of ourselves do we give to others at the expense of our own well-being? For all of his success, perhaps Mr. Williams was giving us what we all wanted all of these years at the expense of his own happiness.