Inevitably, several months after a beloved actor dies too young, we are expected to reckon with the ghost. That time has come for Robin Williams, the apple-cheeked performer with the giant heart, whose final onscreen appearance is arriving in theaters 11 months after his suicide (Absolutely Anything, which features his last voicework, comes out later this year).
No matter that the new drama Boulevard was shot before some of his other movies since released. The film's timing ensures it joins a club also inhabited by A Most Wanted Man (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Enough Said (James Gandolfini), and Soul Men (Bernie Mac), a club no movie wants to be in: where its defining trait is that its star, regardless of how full of life he may seem onscreen, no longer inhabits our mortal plane.
On its own merits, as a story about a middle-aged, married banker who realizes too late in life that he's gay, Boulevard is a little slight. As the final showcase for Williams, though, it's heartbreaking. One of the actor's least heralded skills was how he was able to so deftly balance two distinct acting personas: rubber-faced comedy and subtle, fragile drama. His work here as long-repressed Nolan Mack carries faint shades of his seminal, Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting. Once again we're witnessing a delicate soul, a man so used to internalizing his problems that he seems ready to implode at any minute, gradually coming to grips with the reality of his situation. It's an exquisite performance, and one with unmissable glimpses of some deep depression.
Sitting at the bedside of his dying father in the opening scene, Nolan then silently returns to his wife Joy (Kathy Baker), who seems anything but joyous. The couple sleep in separate beds at home, and Nolan works all the time, despite Joy's efforts to drag him on a vacation cruise. Turns out he's more comfortable with a different kind of cruise: the kind that brings him down an unnamed boulevard and within arm's reach of the young prostitute Leo (Robert Aguire). Watch Williams' nervous fumbling the first time Nolan brings Leo to a motel room, his quickness to offer coffee ("it's complimentary with the room"), his eagerness to talk about his childhood. Nothing explicit is ever shown, yet we feel his emotional nakedness. The actor communicates more in that scene than many performers will articulate in their entire careers.
Director Dito Montiel (A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints) bathes his star in a tremendous amount of shadow, so that Williams is perpetually receding into the darkness. Odd, then, that while Montiel seems to know exactly what to do with Williams, he's adrift with almost every other component of his film. Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk feels wasted in a sidekick role, while a villainous pimp seems to have emerged from a different movie entirely. The familiar trope of movie characters hiring prostitutes for something other than sex continues, and leads into the familiar morale that it's never too late to do what you want.
Seeds of something more compelling can be found in the relationship between Nolan and Leo, which morphs into something that calls to mind the stereotype of what would unkindly be called a sugar daddy. Nolan, so parched for companionship, gives Leo his phone number; when he doesn't call, Nolan's solution is to buy him a phone and preprogram his number into it. If only the object of Nolan's affections could hold our attention as well: the young man's most fascinating trait is his standoffishness, which in turn just leaves us pitying the guy so desperately trying to win him over. After so many years, why bother with someone who doesn't love you back?
But all the film's problems are secondary to Williams himself. Those who viewed his sillier comedies -- the ones where he's doing a million impressions a minute -- and wished he would "dial it back" will be satisfied with the melancholy of his role in Boulevard, though there's nothing at all dialed back about this performance. Williams is full-bore inside this character, his insecurities, his lifelong regrets, his inklings of desire and hope. There is great power in melancholy, something the actor learned early in his career once he began to tackle dramatic roles with the same immersive gusto that had made him the Mork & Mindy superstar. In his final gift to us, the one that just about closes the book on his career, he makes clear just what a giant he was.