In George Clooney’s eighth film as director, “The Tender Bar,” the hero’s Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) manages a thriving neighborhood watering hole called the Dickens. In keeping with its name, it has shelves of dusty leather-bound novels, one of which Charlie hands to his nephew. “That was the moment,” a voiceover informs us, “I knew I wanted to be a writer.”
Some viewers may be thrilled by this statement, and desperate to see how on earth the tyke can fulfill his literary ambitions. Other viewers may dread all the annoying aspects of this particularly precious sub-genre of the non-fiction coming-of-age comedy drama. Adapted from a memoir by J. R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, “The Tender Bar” has all of those annoying aspects. First, there is the inherent lack of tension: we’re watching a film based on a book, so we know that the narrator will reach his goal. Then there are the embarrassingly self-congratulatory scenes in which various relatives and colleagues pronounce that the lad is a “prodigy” who produces “outstanding” and “terrific” work. And finally, there is the undeniable point that becoming a writer — i.e., doing lots of reading and typing — is altogether less cinematic than becoming a gangster or an astronaut.
This last point is the kicker. As watchable as it is missable, “The Tender Bar” is a pleasantly anecdotal amble down memory lane which features amusing one-liners, nostalgic production design, warm, soft, golden-brown lighting, and an efficient if anonymous directorial style: Clooney’s one flourish is a split-screen sequence over the closing credits. But the fact is: nothing much happens. J.R.’s loving mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe) insists about 14 times that he should go to Yale, and that’s what he does. She also insists that he study law, but when he says he wants to be a writer instead, she doesn’t mutter a word of complaint. The film’s screenwriter, William Monahan (“The Departed”, “Body of Lies”) hasn’t put in any major obstacles or villains, and the incidental details aren’t interesting enough to compensate.
Initially, it seems as if “The Tender Bar” will be more dramatic. It’s 1973, and the 11-year-old J.R. is played by Daniel Ranieri, an online sensation with the thick dark eyelashes and expressive composure of a silent movie star. (Unfortunately, he looks nothing like Tye Sheridan, who is sweetly self-effacing as the older J.R.) Dorothy has lost her job, her home, and her latest boyfriend, so she is forced to return to her father’s suburban house in Manhasset, Long Island. She sees the move as a sign of failure, but the film paints an attractive, Spielbergian picture of all-American 1970s domestic clutter, combined with a Scorsese-ish vision of countless talkative relatives bustling between the kitchen and the dinner table. The young J.R. is delighted to be surrounded by so many people, because an aunt and a gaggle of cousins are staying in the house, too. And then … they aren’t. Most of these relatives disappear immediately afterwards, never to be mentioned again, which is unforgivably careless in a film so concerned with family.
Still, the characters who do stay in J.R.’s orbit don’t fare much better. None of them change or deepen. The person we get to know in their first couple of scenes is all they are going to be for the rest of this breezy film. For instance, J.R.’s granddad (Christopher Lloyd) is a grouchy old codger who farts a lot, but smartens up in order to accompany J.R. to his school’s father-son breakfast. But that’s all he is. Sidney (Briana Middleton), J.R.’s on-off girlfriend at Yale, has the narrative purpose of being in a different social class from him, and therefore unwilling to take him seriously as a boyfriend — but she doesn’t have any dreams of her own. (You might think that her being the mixed-race daughter of moneyed Connecticut architects might have excited the odd comment at Yale in the 1980s, but no.) I haven’t read Moehringer’s memoir, so I can’t say whether the writer’s own reminiscences were so superficial, but Clooney and Monahan skip across the surface of events, so it feels as if every actor has been under-used.
This is especially true of the two formative male influences on J.R., one present and one absent. The present one is Uncle Charlie, played by Affleck at his most relaxed and appealing. First glimpsed playing baseball in the sunshine, Charlie has the shaggy 1970s quiff and sideburns of a brunette Robert Redford, and the low, velvety tones of a certain Mr G. Clooney. Handing out cash, cars, and “Man Sciences” advice with the same ready generosity, he is nothing but affectionate and supportive toward his nephew — and the same goes for the interchangeable patrons of his bar, who never swear and always offer to buy him a drink. “When you’re 11 years old,” says J.R. in his narration, “you need an Uncle Charlie.” Yes indeed. But what does Uncle Charlie need?
Maybe the real Charlie was as easy-going and affable as the Affleck incarnation. But you have to wonder: if he was so ideal as a father figure, why didn’t he have any children of his own, or even a long-term relationship? If he was so well-read, didn’t he ever want to do something more with all that knowledge? “The Tender Bar” doesn’t say. Dorothy cracks that her brother is a “gambler,” and that’s why he runs a bar and lives in his father’s house, but the idea that Charlie might have gambled away the chance of a different life isn’t explored. By the same token, his drinking, and that of the Dickens barflies, is neither devilishly tempting or horribly off-putting. There is so little in the way of smoky, dissolute atmosphere that they might as well be sipping cappuccinos in Central Perk. Charlie himself is lean and clear-skinned, and his hangovers are played for laughs. Given how public Affleck’s own battles with alcoholism have been, it’s amazing to see regular boozing being shrugged off so blithely here.
Aside from Charlie, the man who looms over J.R’s life is the father who walked out on him when he was a baby. He is first heard as a voice on the phone, and seen from behind, but the briefly teased mystery of his identity is dissipated by having him turn up at his ex’s house a few minutes later. As played by Max Martini (who has the perfect name for the job), he appears at first to be cut from the same cloth as Charlie: he is a laidback dude who smokes, drives a cool car, and dispenses dubious relationship wisdom. But he is soon revealed to be a hard-drinking, violent asshole who doesn’t care about anyone except himself. Much later in the film, J.R. visits him in North Carolina for the showdown which will mark his transition to adulthood. And what do we learn? He is, yes, a hard-drinking, violent asshole who doesn’t care about anyone except himself, just as he was all those years ago.
We know that the abandonment had a significant effect on J.R. because he keeps saying so, both in his narration and in person to other characters. But the film never shows us what that effect might be. Both as a boy in the 1970s and a young man in the 1980s, he seems boringly well adjusted, with no more angst than any aspiring writer. Yes, he can be unsure of himself, but that doesn’t stop him pursuing Sidney, or going straight from Yale to a job at the New York Times — where, of course, his articles are “terrific” and “outstanding.” This relentlessly mellow mood may make for an agreeable comfort-watch, but terrific and outstanding it isn’t.
“The Tender Bar” premiered at the 2021 London International Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it on December 17.
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