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Review: In his final lead role, Robin Williams boldly underplays the timid tale of ‘Boulevard’

Robin Williams plays a closeted gay man who comes out in his 60s in "Boulevard."
(Starz Digital)

Repressed, fearful and painfully unhappy, the character played by Robin Williams in “Boulevard” is a modern-day Prufrock, slowly gathering the courage to disturb the universe.

As Nolan, a middle-aged banker who has never expressed his homosexuality until he becomes infatuated with a young street hustler, Williams delivers a performance of mannered, sometimes heart-wrenching restraint. But something closer to cautiousness tamps down the film.

Unlike poet T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a portrait of timidity that’s monumentally alive, director Dito Montiel’s dramatic feature is a tentative affair. Working from a screenplay by Douglas Soesbe that juggles contrivance and insight, Montiel labors to avoid sensationalizing Nolan’s story, and in the process he overcompensates.

Sharing a passionless domesticity with his wife of many years (sensitively played by Kathy Baker), Nolan puts on his nametag each morning and goes to the office. An impulse takes him down a nighttime street where male prostitutes congregate, and soon he’s pursuing a relationship of sorts with a hustler, Leo (Roberto Aguire). Nolan’s feelings are nonsexual and quasi-paternal, but mainly odd and sad.

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Leo is more of a cipher than intended, and there’s no spark between these recessive characters, just as the story’s emotional perils are concocted rather than felt. With his terrifically robust turn as Nolan’s literature-professor friend, Bob Odenkirk shakes the tepid film awake, if only briefly.

A year after Williams took his life, his tormented portrayal of a man facing an empty existence has unavoidable resonance beyond the movie’s frame. “Boulevard” finds a hopeful resolution, but what lingers is the sense of a light extinguished. Williams’ last lead performance to be released suggests minor-key depth he might have brought to better films.

calendar@latimes.com

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‘Boulevard’

MPAA rating: R, for language, sexual content

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Playing: Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino

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