‘The Tender Bar’: Ben Affleck Charms in George Clooney’s Underwhelming Coming-of-Age Drama
A young man from a broken home and working-class background rises above his circumstances in George Clooney’s “The Tender Bar.” Based on a memoir of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer, this drama follows J.R. (Tye Sheridan, Daniel Ranieri as a child) as he comes of age in Long Island. What transpires is a contrived tale of a young man with big dreams who breaks a generational curse.
“The Tender Bar” is narrated by middle-aged J.R., and the story begins in the ‘70s, when young J.R. and his single mother, Dorothy (Lily Rabe), move back in with Dorothy’s parents (Christopher Lloyd, Sondra James). Also living there is Dorothy’s brother Charlie (Ben Affleck), the manager of a neighborhood bar with a literary theme, called Dickens. Dorothy, Grandpa and Uncle Charlie, the three main adults in J.R.’s life (Grandman mainly stays in the background here), have all failed to achieve great success in life. Grandpa, a graduate of Dartmouth, is now a cranky old man and the owner of a rundown, crowded house. Dorothy has been stuck working as a secretary in order to make ends meet. Charlie, meanwhile, does okay managing the bar, but he comes across as very intelligent and probably could have gone further in life. It is Charlie who first gets his nephew interested in books, and the boy’s love of reading leads to his wanting to be a writer.
The villain of the story is J.R.’s deadbeat father, Papa “The Voice” Moehringer (Max Martini). Despite being a successful radio personality, he doesn’t give Dorothy financial support. As a kid, J.R. is proud of who his dad is and regularly listens to him on the radio, but as he gets older, he realizes he’s an alcoholic and total misogynist. Still, J.R. holds out hope of having a regular father-son relationship with him well into his twenties. This storyline is full of sad clichés, including a scene of young J.R. waiting for his dad to take him to a baseball game for hours until realizing he’s not coming.
Dorothy, meanwhile, invests a lot into her son, and presses upon him from an early age that he must attend an Ivy League school. While some kids might buckle under that type of pressure, J.R., a dutiful son, succeeds and is accepted into Yale. Freshman year, he meets and falls in love with the sophisticated Sidney (Briana Middleton), but the relationship ends after she takes him home for Christmas, only to dump him at her parents’ house. He remains fixated on her the rest of his college career, and the viewer is made to think that we’re supposed to be rooting for them to get together, even though Sidney is snooty and not very considerate of J.R.’s feelings. Way too much time is spent lingering on this unrequited love, only for him to be let down by a marriage announcement in the paper.
While J.R. certainly faces trials in his life, there are not enough obstacles put in his path to build much tension. After Yale, he lands a gig at the New York Times, and there are few bumps in his career. One has to wonder why this particular life story was interesting enough to be published, let alone be made into a film by George Clooney. Clooney makes few interesting choices here, and overall the film is underwhelming. It’s one saving grace is its performances, especially Affleck’s, as the actor oozes charisma, playing the type of everyman role that made him a star in the first place. Sheridan, Rabe and Lloyd also impress, rising above this mediocre screenplay.
“The Tender Bar” releases Dec. 17 in Los Angeles and New York, Dec. 22 nationwide and Jan. 7 on Amazon Prime Video.