Based on J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir, George Clooney’s The Tender Bar chronicles the childhood of its author in Long Island during the ’70s and ’80s. Estranged from his alcoholic father, J.R. is raised by his mother and wise-cracking Uncle Charlie who owns a bar and mentors him on the ways of love, life, and masculinity. Conceptually, this sounds like fertile ground for an interesting character study and perhaps a fresh angle on the coming-of-age story. Unfortunately, this movie misses its mark.
Although director Clooney and screenwriter William Monahan brought the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s book to the screen with earnestness, the end result plays out with such an insouciant, muddled style, it’s difficult to get inside of it. Scenes are tossed together like discarded laundry, without a thought to creating any momentum or emotional gravitas for the main character. Although the movie is aesthetically nice to look at, with everything swathed in an orange glow of nostalgia, Clooney’s directing lacks focus and intention. What’s the point of this flick? It’s a shame because you can feel that the movie has a heartbeat somewhere, even if you can’t find a pulse.
It’s 1973 and nine-year-old J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (Lily Rabe) return to his grandfather’s house (Christopher Lloyd) after being evicted from their apartment. Overrun with aunts, cousins, and other family members, the one thing that’s missing in the house is J.R.’s father, a radio DJ who abandoned him. Every night, J.R. listens to his father on the airwaves, believing that he lives “in the radio.” There are a few eye-rolling moments in this movie, but watching the kid talk to a radio as if it were his father takes the cake. If that’s not sappy enough for you, Ron Livingston’s narration throughout the film is so warm and syrupy, you’ll think you’re watching The Wonder Years, and at times you wish you were.
In what becomes a regular occurrence, Ben Affleck rescues the movie from drowning in its own sentimental sludge, bringing a natural charisma and drunken wisdom to Uncle Charlie. He takes it upon himself to mentor his nephew, extolling what he calls “The Male Sciences,” including such maxims as where to stash your money, how to hold your liquor, and where to hide your cigarette butts. When the child shows an interest in writing, Charlie opens a closet filled with paperbacks and tells him to start reading. “This is how you become a writer,” he tells him. These are easily the best parts of the film, which you start to miss as the movie descends into an abyss of nothingness.
We soon meet the teenage version of J.R. (Tye Sheridan) and follow him as he attends Yale, falls in love with a fellow student (Briana Middleton), and tries his hand at writing. This is where the film stumbles. When we should be exploring the mystery and stickiness of being a confused teenager, the narrative just stands still, detached. Sheridan is a fine actor. If you’ve seen this year’s The Card Counter, you know he has chops, but in this film he’s simply given nothing to do. Even with Charlie’s advice, we never see the young man implement those lessons in his daily life. The romance with his classmate is so thinly conceived and badly executed, you wonder why they explored it at all. And there are too many scenes where characters have intense conversations in darkened bars that lack humor, don’t amount to much or add to the story. The movie is like a loud drunk at the end of the bar who’s impressed with his own supposed wisdom.
Even when J.R. lands a job at the New York Times, he seems so ambivalent about the whole enterprise, you’re left scratching your head. Clooney wants to present the character as easygoing, but it’s a death knell for an interesting teenager. He seriously lacks depth. When he finally faces his abusive father in an effective sequence, you’re left pretty numb, as he never earned our sympathy.
Affleck on the other hand, is the main reason to see this movie. With a spotty career (recent scathing headlines aside), he’s grown into a more confident and nuanced performer in his last few projects. There are times you just want the filmmakers to stop, take a hard left turn, and drop us into Uncle Charlie’s grimy, smoke-filled apartment, where we can listen to him wax poetic on manly stuff for the rest of the movie.
There are some endearing moments in this film, but it feels like they shot a first draft that was rushed into production. We know that Clooney is a talented actor, impressive philanthropist, and overall cool guy, but this is not the first time he’s stumbled in his directing career (though to be fair, he made two solid films with Goodnight, and Good Luck and The Ides of March). He knows how to pull an audience into a story, but as seen in such misfires as Suburbicon, The Monuments Men, Leatherheads and most recently, The Midnight Sky, he struggles to keep us interested after the first act. Like those films, The Tender Bar feels unnecessarily complicated and messy. A movie about being a kid and making life choices should be much simpler than this.