George Clooney gets behind the movie cameras in 2021’s The Tender Bar, a coming-of-age drama starring Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Daniel Ranieri, Lily Rabe and Christopher Lloyd on Amazon Original. It is based on a 2005 memoir by Pulitzer-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer.
The story is set in the 1970s, in Long Island, New York, where J.R. (Ranieri), a boy with long lashes and a bottomless thirst for books, grows up in the crowded home of his grandfather (Lloyd).
With a perpetually sad mother (Rabe) and an absentee father, you’d expect J.R. to grow up with complex father issues.
But the boy is fortunate — he has an angel watching over him in the form of his mother’s brother, Uncle Charlie (Affleck). Charlie is every kid’s dream father figure: Smart, compassionate, generous with his time and, like the young J.R., is a voracious reader.
Charlie tends The Dickens, a bar from the prohibition era, where shelves are lined with alcohol and classic books, like a bar/library. It is where the young J.R. learns the secrets to a successful life — thanks to Charlie’s love and wisdom.
Then the movie fast-forwards to to a college-kid J.R. (Sheridan) who goes through his first love, first job, all his firsts
— with Uncle Charlie and the regular bar-goers witnessing the boy’s semi-interesting journey.
What keeps you hanging until the end is the knowledge that it’s a true story, plus Affleck’s competent performance, which earned him a SAG nomination for Male Actor in a Supporting Role). Otherwise, you’d quit early on. Clooney’s direction is monotonous and William Monahan’s screenplay is run-of-the-mill.
What could have been a heartwarming success story, The Tender Bar ends up flat and watered-down. It lacks excitement, drama, tension and conflict. Clooney frames his scenes that detaches you from the characters. The small details are lazily executed, losing their emotional resonance. Even the gorgeous, warm color palette fails to redeem the mediocrity of Clooney’s direction.
While there are humorous and touching moments, particularly in the boy’s journey into becoming a writer, The Tender Bar is largely uninspired. It relies too much on cinematography and soundtrack, and forgets the fundamentals of a sharp script and direction.
The only consolation is the story’s life lesson — that if you want to have a successful kid, be like Uncle Charlie.
2.5 out of 5 stars
Stream on Amazon Prime Video