Review: THE TENDER BAR Is Open. Come On In and Have a Seat.
George Clooney directs an adaptation of J.R. Moehringer's acclaimed memoir, starring Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan, now streaming on Prime Video.
Based on the memoir of the same title by New York Times journalist J.R. Moehringer, director George Clooney has managed to serve up a perfectly fine film adaptation for the likes of Amazon. Just, perfectly fine.
The Tender Bar, narratively split across periods of the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s, tells the story of smart but wounded young JR (before a NYT editor forced him to become “J.R.”) coming of age in blue-collar Massachusetts. Played by Tye Sheridan as a young man and by newcomer Daniel Ranieri as a kid, JR is respectively portrayed as fixated on getting a writing career going and pining for a relationship with his father (Max Martini), who walked out on his mother (Lily Rabe). Along the way from his uncle’s bar to The Tender Bar, he’ll fall in love, get angry, and ride around in a beautiful blue vintage convertible that looks like the coolest bar of soap ever.
The poor kid has been left to imagine what his father looks like the way that anyone imagines the physical appearance of any disembodied voice they hear on the radio. In his case, though, his estranged father is actually a voice on the radio. Playing the hits. Out of New York City. On the rare occasion when the guy does turn up, he is revealed to be a distracted, angry alcoholic. Despite the attempted buffering by JR’s supportive uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), a kid can’t help but be heartbroken by the man.
Despite The Tender Bar being JR’s story (both Sheridan and Ramieri are terrific, telegraphing uncertainty, intelligence, and an internal solemn nature), it’s Affleck as Uncle Charlie who is number one on the call sheet. Though Charlie is the very definition of a supporting character role, Affleck has rarely been better. In playing this intuitive semi-athletic owner and proprietor of a literature-themed neighborhood tavern called “The Dickens” (named after Dickens) in Massachusetts, it’s obvious that this is the actor exactly in his element.
Affleck’s Charlie puts up a solid all-or-nothing front, at one point leading young JR to a closet literally overflowing with books and telling him, “Read every one of these, and don’t talk to me until you do.” When JR as a university student brings a few colleagues to The Dickens, Charlie forces a long-term decisiveness: “Whatever you order right now is what I’m gonna pour for you every time you walk through that door from now on!” Indeed, choose wisely in all things.
Here, Clooney (who doesn’t show up in the movie) cultivates a good if also overly consistent atmosphere. In terms of color palate, The Tender Bar is the brownest, most earth-tone-y movie in years. Even when it jumps forward to 1986 and beyond, everything’s still lit like a faded Polaroid picture from 1974.
JR’s grandfather’s (Christopher Lloyd) house, where the whole extended family seems to live, is perpetually bustling with rambunctious kids and family members piled around the breakfast table, shoveling cereal while the radio churns out top 40 tunes. At night, the place is illuminated with warm incandescence. Grandpa sits in the chair and farts a lot.
Like just about every creative decision necessary in making The Tender Bar, Clooney doesn’t make wrong choices so much as all safe choices. In the moments of watching it, it all works plenty well. Only afterwards may you find yourself struggling slightly to recall the film.
Like a visit to the neighborhood tavern, The Tender Bar is kinda cozy, a little loud, a little reserved, and entirely familiar. It’s one guy’s story of how he arrived at the point of telling the story we’re watching, so what more should we expect?
Watch it or don’t; tip your bartender on the way out.
The film is now streaming on Prime Video.
The Tender Bar
- George Clooney
- J.R. Moehringer
- William Monahan
- Ben Affleck
- Tye Sheridan
- Daniel Ranieri