Written by Patrick Hao
With The Tender Bar, George Clooney has now directed eight movies, it is confounding to figure out exactly what he is interested in as a director. Since his promising one-two punch of Confession of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney’s directing career has been treading water as he tries to replicate some form of Old Hollywood, boomer nostalgia. Everything he has done has been flaccid in tone and execution. The Tender Bar is no exception.
Based on the memoir of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, J.R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar is a nostalgia-laden coming-of-age tale that has a hard time ever gaining any momentum that would justify its existence. The script is by William Monahan who continues to prove that only a great director like Martin Scorsese, who directed the Monahan penned The Departed, could raise one of his works out of mediocrity. Both Monahan and Clooney have a saccharine vision of 1973 Long Island – Manhasset to be exact. The film is shot with an orange hue to represent nostalgia as the radio plays the greatest hits from Paul Simon to King Harvest.
The film follows young 11-year-old J.R. Moehringer (Daniel Ranieri), as he and his single mother, Dorothy (Lily Rabe) move into her childhood home. J.R.’s life will now be populated by a colorful cast of characters. At the center of this cast is Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), who becomes the de facto father figure in J.R.’s life, giving life lessons such as “Never hit a woman, even if she stabs you with scissors” and “read enough books and you can become a writer.” The cloying words of wisdom will continue from there.
Uncle Charlie owns a bar called The Dickens (based on Charles Dickens) where J.R. will spend his time with the colorful barflies that populate the bar. The film doesn’t spend enough time there to gain any sense of camaraderie of the patrons. J.R.’s grandparents (Christopher Lloyd and Sondra James) round out the characters in J.R.’s childhood. Notably absent, except for a few choice moments, is J.R.’s father (Max Martini) who is a disc jockey who bounces around from station to station, appearing in J.R.’s life only in moments of convenience.
The childhood section is overly sentimental but fine for the most part, especially with Ben Affleck affectionately chewing the scenery. It is the second part when the film jumps ahead to J.R.’s time in Yale as he finds burgeoning love. Older J.R. is played by Tye Sheridan, a good actor who has never been more compelling as he was as a kid in The Tree of Life. This section becomes devoid of all substance mainly due to the very lack of it. There have been many movies adapted from memoirs of burgeoning authors. This does not stray far from the pattern.
The Tender Bar becomes dramatically inert as J.R. begins to just do things. There is no interrogation or exploration of the deeper themes that could be at play. In one scene, Dorothy imparts to her son after having cancer that he must achieve great success. Yet, at no point is that pressure ever interrogated. The same can be said with the working-class values that J.R. is imparted with. He butts heads with his girlfriend’s parents who are of means, but besides one scene, that is never touched upon again.
It’s hard to understand from watching The Tender Bar what would even interest him in this subject, to begin with. Clooney is from an upper-middle-class Kentucky show biz family. If only Clooney could be a better director because he is one of the few people left in Hollywood who still has the clout to make mid-budget movies like these in the studio system. Yet, with every failure like The Tender Bar, that influence dwindles.
The Tender Bar Trailer
The Tender Bar is in limited theatrical release and on Prime Video.