Featuring what’s billed as the final screen role of Robin Williams, Boulevard is an agonizingly sensitive, fatally timid drama about a 60-year-old husband facing his lifelong attraction to other men. That’s the theoretical plot anyway. In the actual movie, Williams’ character, Nolan, comes across less gay than asexual, and more than either one as unbelievably naïve.
In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality in June, a late-in-life coming-out story about a fellow deep in the closet might seem to be behind the times. But men like Nolan still very much exist. Their stories are valid, sometimes sad, often inspiring. Boulevard is none of these things. It’s just as bland and numb as it is well-intentioned.
A banker, Nolan is married to professor Joy (the fine Kathy Baker, redefining “thankless role”). Their life is childless but comfy and loving, in a separate-bedrooms way, at least. And things are looking up: Nolan’s boss puts in a good word for him to land the job managing one of the bank’s other branches.
Everything changes, though, when Nolan cruises the city streets one night and gives a lift to Leo (Robert Aguire), an underdressed, barely adult boy loitering on the sidewalk. Nolan is shocked, shocked, when Leo quotes his going rates for certain sexual favors. Instead, Nolan takes the twink hustler to a hotel for awkward talk. Which he pays for.
This sets the tone for much of the rest of the film. We’re meant to understand that Nolan is gravitating toward finally having sex with his own kind, but the movie refuses to go there. Nolan and Leo’s one notable hug is as chaste but less emotional than the one Williams gave Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.
If Boulevard’s sexual timidity isn’t bad enough, the rest of the movie shows Nolan making one bad mistake after another, sabotaging his personal and professional life. None of this is delivered believably; it’s just a series of thuddingly handled plot points.
The screenplay is all thumbs, starting with a scene that has Nolan’s manager privately badmouthing the gay couple whose home their bank is mortgaging. (The boss’s line, “God is gonna strike me dead for this one,” is a good example of the movie’s way-too-on-the-nose dialogue.)
Williams can’t save any of this. He’s part of the problem. After the comic started taking on dramatic roles decades ago, he was always uneven. When he had good actors opposite him, he stepped up his game (example: Matt Damon). On his own, though, trying to deliver a “serious” performance, he had a habit of clenching and squirming his thin-lipped mouth in a way that was supposed to indicate inner conflict. To me, it always made him look squirrely. That tic is on full display here. Probably that’s because most of his crucial scenes are played opposite Aguire. The kid may be talented, but the movie doesn’t give him a chance to show us.
As Nolan’s long-suffering but quietly complicit wife, Baker gets to blow up nicely near the end. Bob Odenkirk as Nolan’s longtime best pal — a student-seducing literature professor — is also strong. But the movie is a deadweight that none of these actors can lift, even collectively.
Also onscreen, The Stanford Prison Experiment suffers from doing what it intends to do pretty well. It puts us into the confines of the infamous and quickly aborted 1971 study, in which college students were assigned roles as prisoners or wardens in a mockup lockdown situation. The intended study of behavior was shut down six days into its intended two-week schedule.
That the study did not have appropriate parameters and controls is apparent pretty quickly, as one runty kid named Christopher, soon nicknamed John Wayne (Michael Angarano), gets into the idea of role-playing the sadistic warden who hectored Paul Newman to death in Cool Hand Luke. Angarano is very good in the role. By that, I mean he’s obnoxious. You want to punch him, and you can’t stand watching him. And he’s all over the movie, targeting one of the “prisoners” (Ezra Miller) for special hazing.
Billy Crudup, as the director of the experiment, is fine, but as his own inner bully/fascist gets triggered from observing his project spin down the drain, we lose any sort of empathy for him. (Olivia Thirlby, as his fiancée and the designated all-caps Girl of the movie, is shuttled in during the final minutes to voice objection to the study and act as a voice of reason.)
The facts of the Stanford study are so disturbing, a feature film may not be the right vehicle to convey them. The movie invites you to share in the frustrations of the experiment itself. But why? There’s something filmmakers always need to ask themselves before they launch the expensive, exhausting process of creating something: Does anybody actually want to watch this story?
Boulevard. With Robin Williams, Kathy Baker. Directed by Dito Montiel. Rated R. 88 min. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
The Stanford Prison Experiment. With Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Rated R. 122 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.