Clooney’s New Film ‘The Tender Bar’ Is Steady and Entertaining But Left Us Thinking ‘Is That It?’
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The Tender Bar, based on the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, is a modestly scaled family drama from director George Clooney. It may seem light years from 2020’s end-of-the-world sci-fi drama The Midnight Sky, but when you break them both down, they’re basically chamber pieces about the ties that bind us (and suffocate and oppress and, yes, buoy us up).
The Midnight Sky was not well received. Perhaps the timing wasn’t right for a family drama set against the backdrop of the final days of Earth while we were in the midst of our own pandemic, though I found the film graceful and measured. The Tender Bar features an easygoing performance by Ben Affleck as Uncle Charlie, who takes his long-suffering nephew JR (Daniel Ranieri as a child; Tye Sheridan as an adult) under his wing when his free-spirited mother (Lily Rabe) ends up back in the family compound on Long Island. It’s populated with strong performers and doesn’t overreach emotionally.
“The truth is, the movie is about — and I hate to lapse into cliché — about finding that sense of community, that group of people that support and love kids and believe in them where ever they are,” Ben Affleck has said. “I’m really proud of this one. I love it. You don’t love every movie you do. They don’t all work out. But this story really resonated with me, and the movie is incredibly well made by George.”
Affleck is not wrong. Clooney guides the cast and script steadily between the early days of JR as he is embraced back into the bosom of his extended family while discovering his interest in becoming a writer, and the older JR who is fulfilling his mother’s dream of heading off to Yale. Ranieri is a cute, poised actor, and he gets more of our emotional attention than the older Sheridan does in the college sections (I mean, come on, he’s a plucky, adorable kid!). Yet except for Affleck and Lily Rabe — who never fails to light up a scene when she’s in it — the film, while watchable, was never as compelling as it was meant to be.
The bar itself in The Tender Bar — ‘Dickens’ it’s called here, named by Uncle Charlie after another Charles — is its own character, with a slew of character actors as regulars who become a drunken Greek chorus overseeing JR’s trials and tribulations. Uncle Charlie is his father-figure, as JR’s own estranged father is a worthless radio DJ talking head (Max Martini, in high sleaze mode). Affleck doesn’t overplay his “Cool Uncle” role here, which is great as the conception of Uncle Charlie is as a god amongst men, so his laidback approach to bonding and advice is a relief.
While it entertains from scene to scene, it’s difficult not to leave the theatre thinking, “Is that it?” Here’s another young white male’s journey to becoming a writer (which is as common as stories of becoming a drug addict or coming out, etc.), yet what’s particularly special about this one that warrants our attention? Honestly, not much. The only character you’d want to hang out and drink a beer with is Uncle Charlie. JR, unfortunately, comes across as a supporting role in his own story.