The Tender Bar, 2021.
Directed by George Clooney.
Starring Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, Daniel Ranieri, Max Martini, Sondra James, Michael Braun, Matthew Delamater, Max Casella, Rhenzy Feliz, Ivan Leung, and Briana Middleton.
A boy growing up on Long Island seeks out father figures among the patrons at his uncle’s bar.
A young man is seen riding a bus, somewhat nervous, as it turns out he is about to be interviewed for Yale. That man would become American novelist Jr Moehringer (short for Junior), with George Clooney’s The Tender Bar based on the author’s memoirs of the same title (and written by William Monahan). Throughout that ride, the story frequently flashes back to Jr’s childhood where he is inquisitively played by newcomer Daniel Ranieri and raised by his mom Dorothy (Lily Rabe), a well-meaning woman routinely dealt terrible cards personally and professionally, forcing her to move back in with her crude and charismatic father (Christopher Lloyd’s Grandpa) and mother. There is also an intriguing juxtaposition of perspectives here with Jr thrilled to be back in Long Island surrounded by extended family, whereas the situation has Dorothy feeling like a failure. One would be within reason to presume that these memoirs adapted for the screen would have to focus on defining what makes a home and the struggles of single motherhood reliant on family assistance.
However, The Tender Bar is a decidedly male-oriented story, not necessarily to a fault but one that assuredly doesn’t have much concern with Dorothy’s place in Jr’s upbringing. That sentiment is stranger considering Jr’s drive to make something special of his life comes from his mom’s insistence on getting a college degree at Yale. Nevertheless, Ben Affleck’s uncle Charlie also lives in the house, rendered as a surrogate father in the absence of Jr’s radio DJ father that ran away from parental responsibility. He’s not just out of their lives; he won’t even pay child support. And Charlie still feels owed $30 from the deadbeat dad, determined to receive it back one day, albeit cynical about it ever happening.
Charlie also runs a bar called The Dickens, which turns out to be a positive source of inspiration for young Jr both from his uncle’s words of wisdom and various patrons. Falling in line with the bar’s name, there are also several Charles Dickens books on display for Jr to rent out one at a time, sparking his passion for becoming a writer. The performance from Ben Affleck as a sage-like father figure that encourages Jr to pursue his dream is, well, tender. A bar serving as a place of warmth and kindness coupled with realistic friendly ribbing also makes for a welcome subversion and usually an environment full of belligerence and toxicity. Daniel Ranieri also delivers an impressive turn as a young boy fixated on education and making his mother proud while eager to get to know his father in person someday rather than just hearing him as a voice on the radio. Played by Max Martini, the smoothingly deep-voiced dad does arrange a visit, serving as a bridge between childhood and young adulthood in terms of the narrative.
Through no fault of Tye Sheridan as the YA Jr, The Tender Bar transitions into a rambling bore, following his Yale education and a somewhat unhealthy obsession with impressing peer Sidney (Briana Middleton) in their complicated FWB- reminiscent relationship that sometimes sees the man left behind for other boyfriend options. None of this stops Jr, from pursuing her for something serious, which one would think ties into his fatherly abandonment issues and seeking approval, except The Tender Bar abstains from exploring any of this. Outside of a hilarious scene that sees Jr provoking and insulting Sidney’s parents for demeaning him and his lower-class social status, it’s a plot thread that goes nowhere emotionally or insightfully.
Compounding these frustrations is that their humor and charm from the family and bar communities is diminished in favor of consecutively touching upon important pillars of JR’s life, which is technically fine but executed here with no urgency, stakes, or suspense, or engagement. While considering getting in touch with his father, perhaps to bury his baggage for good, Jr also has to figure out what kind of writer he wants to be. The confrontation also fails, mainly because the script is a scattershot patch job where everyone feels thinly drawn as a character. George Clooney has several fascinating threads to dissect, choosing the surface level route hoping a charming and talented cast will save the day. It all goes over about as compelling as one of Grandpa’s farts.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com