Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 21st, 2021
The Tender Bar (George Clooney, 2021) 2 out of 4 stars.
In George Clooney’s latest effort, The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer’s eponymous 2005 memoir comes to the screen with little drive and even less direction. For a film about a poor kid rising above disadvantaged roots, there is a surprising lack of energy, which the real-life Moehringer must possess in spades. Though actor Tye Sheridan (The Card Counter) makes an appealing-enough lead, accompanied by a strong turn from Ben Affleck (The Last Duel) as his Uncle Charlie, owner of the titular watering hole, the script—courtesy of William Monahan (Mojave)—squanders the positives by wallowing in pablum. Sadly, with the exception of his marvelous sophomore feature, Good Night, and Good Luck., that’s too often been Clooney’s stock-in-trade.
There are plenty of entertaining moments, especially early on when young J.R. (then just JR, sans periods) is played by the wonderful Daniel Ranieri. Following a parental split, he and his mother (Lily Rabe, Fractured) arrive in the Long Island town of Manhasset (though the movie was actually shot in various Massachusetts locations). With little-to-no job prospects, Mom has to move back in with Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd, Nobody) and find work as a secretary. Dad (Max Martini, Eli) is a New York City-based disc jockey whose physical absence is made worse by his vocal presence on the radio. Still, when he does actually show up, he’s pretty much a deadbeat, so good riddance.
It’s Uncle Charlie who steps into the void left by the lack of a father figure (as, at least once, does Grandpa). He takes JR under his wing and explains the facts of life as he understands them and as he thinks all men should. He’s also a voracious reader, an autodidact with a true respect for knowledge. Seeing in his nephew real intellectual potential, he encourages JR’s writerly ambitions. That, along with Mom’s insistence that her son will go to “Harvard or Yale!” (as she boldly declares) means that there is no shortage of support for JR to succeed in school. Fortunately, there is also plenty of encouragement for him to have fun, too.
And get into Yale he does, which is where the film really falters on its already wobbly narrative legs (for enjoyable sequences do not a narrative make). There, the screenplay’s tendency to view everyone as an oversimplified metaphor of JR’s steps towards growth fully blossoms into full reductive mode. This is best (or worst) embodied in the character of Sidney (Briana Middleton), a wealthy classmate from Westport, CT, for whom JR falls and falls hard, only to have her repeatedly fail to see him as anything other than a diversion. When first they meet, she asks him all sorts of questions about who and what he wants to be; in turn, he asks her none back. Why would he? She’s just a symbol, after all.
Affleck is always more than watchable, but Charlie’s wisdom soon devolves into hoary platitudes: he’s a better mentor to the boy than the man. Rabe’s mother, like Sidney, remains one-dimensional, since this is really a male universe. The actual J.R. Moehringer sounds like a nice, smart fellow, and while this fictionalized portrait of the first part of his life is harmless and not without its pleasures, it also fails to impress. I have a copy of the book and may give it a try. I hope it hope holds deeper truths than this.