So far in his career, George Clooney’s directing efforts have varied from bad to mediocre. 2020’s The Midnight Sky squandered its ideas by offering a tonally messy, miss match of genres that brought little new to the classic space opera. And before that was the uninspired Suburbicon (2017) and A list lustreless Monument’s Men (2014), just to name a few. It would seem though that Clooney has found some material that could very much work in his wheelhouse.
Adapted for film is the memoirs of writer J. R. Moehringer, who details his life from his troubled upbringing, to Yale graduate. Under the watchful eye of his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), a Long Island bartender whose straightforward approach to life becomes the perfect guide for young J. R. (played by Daniel Ranieri), who takes his seat at the bar and finds joy in listening to the stories and imperative life lessons of those sipping heavily from the glasses in which Charlie fills. With no father figure in J. R.’s life, Charlie becomes the unlikely role model that is needed in a young boys life.
The Tender Bar succeeds with its warming performances, and very lived in 70’s aesthetic. There’s no discussion to be had in regards to who brings the most joy to screen though, with Ben Affleck unsurprisingly doing the heaviest lifting. His imperfect, rough around the edges character is the muse needed in the void of J. R.’s real father. He tops up his fellow customer’s pints, while they speak of trivial history and deeply philosophical confabulations. Filling J. R.’s little mind with charming wonders and crucial lessons that he can take forward, and help shape the man he would later become.
Young J. R. is played wonderfully by Daniel Ranieri, who’s debut feature appearance is a surprising revelation. With the elder J. R. being played by Tye Sheridan, sadly the results dwindle during his appearance in the movie. Much of where Ranieri’s portrayal excels is through Affleck’s narrative takeover. J. R. is always the central character, both when we see him in his younger stages and through his days as a college student, but the film is at its best when its supportive cast are given priorities. Not only with Affleck’s Uncle Charlie, but Lily Rabe gets some good moments as J. R.’s mother, and a humorous turn from Christopher Lloyd as the bumbling, farting old grandfather.
The biggest issue with regards to The Tender Bar is that it exercises the evidence that not everyone’s story is ultimately worth telling. Kind of like cackling to yourself whilst recalling a funny story to people who weren’t there to live it with you. J. R.’s life is far more interesting in his own mind than it would be to ours. There’s little drama and real hardship, but also not an overly explored sense of overachievement either. It feels like a genuine letter of thanks to a family member, that at least in J.R.’s mind, went far and beyond for a young boy that Charlie ultimately wasn’t responsible for. It is in the reality of which The Tender Bar is so remarkably unremarkable that it lacks a sense of real purpose. This is significantly more noticeable during the Sheridan stages of the movie.
Tender, Clooney’s latest directional effort may be. I’d even happily add to it charming, homely and predominantly well acted. But much like his previous efforts, The Tender Bar’s weaknesses outweigh its strengths, leaving us once again with a film that does little to escalate the interest of Clooney’s career change.