The Tender Bar is a structural, tonal mess – but a damn likable one. George Clooney, directing his seventh film, leaves a sloppy trail of memories and moments in the life of writer J.R. Moehringer, who we see as a kid growing up fast on Long Island, and then as a hopeful journalist figuring out adulthood. The film is filled with clichés about loud, loving families and buddies down at the corner tavern; yet, something here struck a chord with me.
I think it comes down to the film’s three key men. Clooney, as a director, understands and knows how to convey sincerity, a sweet and welcome commodity today. Ben Affleck, as usual, just gets it, knowing how to inhabit a film and take you along with him. Tye Sheridan, as the older J.R., commands the film’s second half, giving an uneven story some stability and quiet charm.
As we meet J.R. and his family, The Tender Bar is played too big and directed even bigger. Clooney is ostensibly yelling his intentions so the last row can hear him. The kid (able first-timer Daniel Ranieri) and his struggling single mom (Lily Rabe) end up back where she grew up, a house now overflowing with cousins and noise and spaghetti dinner, led by grandpa Christopher Lloyd. It’s a joyous living alternative for J.R., who is used to being just with mom, as his dreadfully deadbeat DJ dad exists only as a voice on the radio.
Lloyd’s supporting character is a microcosm of what’s both frustrating and great about The Tender Bar. The film limits its actors, and then gives them room to expand a seemingly narrow character. At first, Lloyd is the classic old grandpa, griping from the comforts of a ratty easy chair. It’s predictable and shallow, William Monahan’s dialogue checking off the boxes of “wacky but loving family.” But then, Grandpa accompanies J.R. to a father-son day at school, where Lloyd gets to show off his character’s grace, charm, and unexpected intellect. This latter scenario is wonderful but the whole formula doesn’t compute. That’s how The Tender Bar plays out in total.
The kid’s usual stand-in dad is beloved Uncle Charlie (Affleck), the wise and wise-cracking owner of Dickens, the local bar. Affleck shows off that innate sense of always understanding the movie he’s in and playing to the rhythms just right (Leonardo DiCaprio is exceptionally good at this; it’s also what makes Affleck, by the way, a fine Batman.)
When Monahan’s script, adapted from Moehringer’s memoir, gets stilted or hokey, Affleck knows just what to do: ham it up. He doles out barroom advice to his little nephew like a puffed-up, street-weary philosopher, leaning big on his comic delivery to make up for the clumsy setup.
As J.R and the film mature, so does Affleck’s portrayal of Charlie. He keeps the character consistent but tones it down a bit, right in line with the movie. In some scenes, Affleck is doing more than just delivering what the film needs; he’s actually carrying it. (Side note: Affleck’s hair through the decades provides its own enjoyment.)
As college-age J.R., Tye Sheridan is Affleck’s equal in knowing how to craft a character. When he’s not speaking, Sheridan conveys J.R.’s curiosity, ambition, cynicism. With dialogue, he maintains that all but adds cautiousness to his delivery, a kid who’s been burned before. The only sour notes in Sheridan’s part of the film involve his often-unrequited love for a college friend (Briana Middleton). The storytelling is scattered, and I had trouble buying that Sheridan was heartsick – makes for some fun chatter with Uncle Charlie, though.
Clooney makes some decent decisions to keep the action moving (I’m absolutely grateful that he relegated a dreadful-looking beach sequence to the closing credits), but he also makes some cuckoo visual choices. Most egregious are the occasional frenetic zooms that seem to pop up out of nowhere, resulting in nothing. If Clooney had stayed steady – literally and figuratively – The Tender Bar would be a far more satisfying film. It already has plenty going for it.