Give George Clooney credit; whatever you think of him as both an actor and a filmmaker, he’s at least trying new and different things. His work now is as far removed from stuff like Monuments Men and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (still my favorite Clooney-directed film) as his latest, The Tender Bar, is from last year’s somber The Midnight Sky. The problem Clooney faces is that a lot of what he’s done behind the camera has been forgettable. Not necessarily bad, just refuses to linger on the mind for long once it’s done. Unfortunately, that charge applies to this film, as well, despite a trio of terrific lead performances.
Clooney fought for years to acquire the rights to J. R. Moehringer’s award-winning memoir, and you can tell he’s relishing the chance to adapt it. There’s real love coming through in his direction, and the cast expresses that, as well. The problem is the source material is thin, seen-it-all-before coming-of-age stuff that makes you wonder why it was so special in the first place. The answer comes from the witticisms and charm from Ben Affleck’s character, uncle Charlie.
Uncle Charlie is the highlight of young J.R.’s (played as a boy by Daniel Ranieri) life, which is full of hardship he doesn’t quite understand. The film begins with J.R. being hurried away by his mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe) away from their disastrous life and into her Long Island childhood home. That place has become where all of the family members retreat to after one failure or another. It’s a nifty and accurate description for many families out there; the childhood home is the place of sanctuary, so to speak. Her eccentric parents (Christopher Lloyd and Sondra James) still live there, and so does her brother Charlie, who just never left.
Charlie runs the local tavern, The Dickens, a place that has more old heavy books on the shelf than it does drunken bar patrons. It’s here that J.R. finds a sanctuary of his own; sitting on the barstool listening to Charlie’s witty remarks and pearls of wisdom, while the patrons there become a little makeshift family, as well. It’s easy to see why a kid like J.R. would love Charlie. He’s funny, and sort of a man-child. While it’s clear he’s way smarter than he lets on, Charlie’s attitude can be pretty juvenile, too. The best uncles always are.
But he’s also fiercely loyal to his clan. From the moment we see him at a neighborhood baseball game, and the way he locks eyes at a tired, resigned Dorothy, we know that he knows what she’s going through. He’s seen it all before. He’s the kind of guy you know could’ve been something if he’d ever left town, but family comes first.
The best parts of The Tender Bar are these times with J.R. as a kid, venturing out with Charlie and his pals (and occasionally short-lived girlfriend), finding his way through this difficult life. And while that relationship with Charlie provides much of the film’s humor, the heart is his bond with Dorothy, who wants nothing more than to see her son go to Yale. That’s as far as her aspirations go, and soon they become Charlie’s aspirations, too. For all that she’s sacrificed, he’s going to make her dream come true.
Shot in a non-linear fashion, the film also jumps forward to an older J.R., played with typical flatness by Tye Sheridan. There’s never any doubt whether he gets to Yale, so there’s no real drama there. His story has very little meat to it, and largely revolves around his on again/off again relationship with Sidney (Briana Middleton), an upper-class coed who seems to enjoy playing with his emotions, knowing he’s from different economic status and has self-esteem issues. It’s just not very compelling. Melodramatic but far more interesting is J.R.’s infrequent interactions with his father (Max Martini), a prominent DJ who’d rather get drunk and get laid than spend any time with his kid. A major thread finds J.R. forging his own path to being a better man than his father ever was, but again, those self-esteem problems keep interfering.
While Affleck gets the showy, comedic role, it’s Rabe who I think steals the show with her warm-hearted performance. The role could have been fleshed out more, especially a go-nowhere subplot involving a health scare, but Rabe is terrific with everyone she shares the screen with. Affleck is perfect as the uncle we all wish we had, and really find great chemistry opposite Ranieri in the young actor’s first major role.
Clooney’s upbeat direction fits the film’s positive vibe, although an unfortunate choice to have Ron Livingston do explanatory voiceover as a future version of J.R. feels like he doesn’t trust his audience. Fortunately, there’s enough heart and humor in The Tender Bar that it remains a pleasant watch, even if its intoxicating effects are brief.
The Tender Bar is in theaters now and will stream on Prime Video beginning January 7th.