In “Boulevard,” a middle-aged married man picks up a gay hustler on the Nashville street where hookers hang out, pays the kid for company instead of sex, and ever-so-gradually begins to confront the secret identity he’s suppressed for so long. Knowing that man is played by Robin Williams (in morose rather than manic mode) tells you everything you need to know about the film, which is well written, acted and directed, and yet somehow never manages to surprise. That approach has its advantages, however, making the unfulfilled character’s sexuality almost secondary to the ways in which straight audiences can relate.
As best friend Winston (Bob Odenkirk) puts it in the film, “Maybe it’s never too late to start living the life you really want” — an optimistic philosophy that may as well be the mantra for a project director Dito Montiel (“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”) felt compelled to make after his parents split up late in life. Though some might assume the window to begin a new relationship would have already closed for singles in their 60s, such stories aren’t uncommon. In many respects, the true challenge is finding the courage to break free of the familiar routine that holds one back, which is certainly the case for Williams’ character, Nolan Mack.
Nolan leads a comfortable life. He works a demanding yet unexceptional job at a Nashville bank, and shares his home with an exceptional yet undemanding wife, Joy (Kathy Baker), with whom he splits the domestic tasks each day before the two split up and find their way to separate bedrooms at night. These two are a bit older than the couple in “American Beauty,” but one needn’t look much closer to detect that something’s missing in their marriage.
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By now, Williams is such a pro at playing forlorn souls saddled with heavy baggage, Monteil doesn’t even need to show said baggage via flashback (which makes Nolan’s monologue to his bedridden dad all the more unnecessary). Still, this is one of the kindest characters Williams has ever played, which makes his self-imposed turmoil — the consequence of not wanting to hurt anyone, least of all his wife — all the more tragic. Tapping into that same loneliness felt in “One Hour Photo” and “Good Will Hunting,” the actor projects a regret so deep and identifiable, viewers should have no trouble connecting it to whatever is missing in their own lives — whether those regrets are romantic, sexual, professional or spiritual.
Returning home from a visit to his father in the retirement home one night, Nolan upsets his routine with a rare impulsive decision. He’s driven by the streetwalkers who line the boulevard countless times without ever so much as acknowledging them. Now, for some reason, he pulls up alongside them, clearly trying to muster the courage to speak to one of them when a young man steps in front of his car. Despite his tawdry profession and strung-out look, Leo (Roberto Aguire) may as well be an angel fallen from heaven, and Nolan accepts the offer to give him a ride without ever collecting on the implied double entendre.
For Leo, the relationship would be easier if it were physical. He doesn’t know how to interpret Nolan’s interest, which doesn’t seem to be sexual. It’s as if a lifelong vegetarian had suddenly walked into a steakhouse, and instead of ordering dinner, merely wanted to admire the meat. His appetite in check, Nolan’s instinct is to be protective: He offers to pay more than Leo asks for his company, and invites him on a date to the nicest restaurant he knows, where he runs into his boss (Henry Haggard) but salvages the situation with a bad lie (rather than re-creating the double-duty setpiece from “Mrs. Doubtfire”). He even intercedes in a fight with Nolan’s pimp, resulting in a tough-to-explain black eye.
Nolan has been even-keeled for so long that no one is fooled when he denies that something’s going on, though no one would expect the truth, either — well, almost no one, though that piercing revelation is the pic’s lone twist. The rest is polite and accessible, patiently swept along by David Wittman’s sensitive score. The details (as in a lovely scene where we learn what the movie “Masculin feminin” means to the married couple) are precious in a film that trades specificity for tasteful relatability, but that’s what the assignment seems to demand, as “Boulevard” builds to a series of confrontations in which Nolan can no longer deny his passions and must instead choose the road not taken.