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‘The Tender Bar’ Review: Ben Affleck movie goes down smooth but lacks kick

George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, 'The Tender Bar' is a watered-down cocktail lacking in any flavor.

Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan in 'The Tender Bar'.
(Image: © Amazon Studios)

Our Verdict

George Clooney's tendency to water down his concoction makes the drink a forgettable one.

For

  • - Ben Affleck is the show-stealer
  • - There's the nugget of an interesting narrative about masculine influences and absent fathers

Against

  • - Lacks a strong narrative throughline
  • - George Clooney continues to be a very visually bland director

There’s usually a trick to translating true stories to the format of fictionalized cinema, a throughline that needs to be found in order for the complexities of someone's life to work within the confines of a three-act structure. The Tender Bar should already have a leg up in that arena, since it’s an adaptation of the memoir of the same name by JR Moehringer, but there’s a lack of creative spark from screenwriter William Monahan and director George Clooney, failing to fully capitalize upon the story’s themes of absent and found fatherhood. 

Is it a competently made film? Sure, there isn’t anything especially wrong with it and it seems to be a relatively faithful translation of Moehringer’s remembrances. But is it a good movie? That answer depends on your tolerance for stories feeling completely disposable.

The Tender Bar starts out promising enough, following a young JR (Daniel Ranieri) as he and his mother (Lily Rabe) move in with his cantankerous grandfather (Christopher Lloyd) and his bartending Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) in Long Island. He ponders the absence of his father, a radio DJ whom he thinks of as “The Voice” (Max Martini) that refuses to pay child support or be meaningfully present in JR’s life. The very name “JR” acts as a reflection of the child’s nature as a junior but a refusal to acknowledge his father’s name for which those initials stand. And without grandiose statements, Uncle Charlie’s encouragement to self-educate from behind the bar of the literarily themed “The Dickens” gives JR the guiding hand to get into Yale and become a successful writer.

The Tender Bar might have fared better by putting a greater emphasis on JR’s childhood, since these are the scenes where you best get a sense of Affleck’s quietly paternal performance and JR’s search for familial identity. However, the movie starts to spin its tires with a rather clunky transition into JR’s adulthood, in which he is played by Tye Sheridan. It’s here that it becomes less of a cohesive whole and more a series of well-performed but uncompelling sequential events.

JR chases a singular love interest (Briana Middleton) who perpetually strings him along. He contemplates his aimlessness as his potential pursuit of a law career seems less appealing the closer he becomes to graduation. He instead pursues a career with The New York Times as a journalist that also fails to give him a sense of purpose. 

It’s easy to see what the intended story is meant to be here — JR’s perpetual search for a father figure is what left him feeling deprived, in spite of the surrogate father he had all along. But when each scene is shot so bluntly, without any eye for visual subtext or symbolism, you’re left to piece together that intent through implication instead of allowing the film to actually reveal it to you.

This is ultimately a failure of direction. Clooney is a decent enough director when he’s trying to get his actors to subtly emote, but his grasp of the visual language of cinema is lacking. Occasionally, cinematographer Martin Ruhe will emphasize a comic reaction with a quick zoom or a cutaway gag will hint at a joke that would hit better if it weren’t the only one of its kind in the whole film. The effect of these minute flourishes, however, is the idea that Clooney is just playing around with a toy box of techniques without having any sense of how they build his film as a whole.

That being said, there isn’t anything inherently offensive about The Tender Bar. Like a house cocktail, it goes down smooth and isn’t likely to give you much of a hangover in the aftermath. But Clooney has limited talents behind the bar and his tendency to water down his concoction makes the drink a forgettable one.

The Tender Bar is now playing in theaters and will debut on Prime Video Jan. 7, 2022.