- Nate Adams
'The Tender Bar' review: George Clooney directs flat adaptation that goes nowhere
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
A premise you’ve seen a million times with characters you’ve seen a million times, the George Clooney directed turkey “The Tender Bar” is neither tender nor engaging. Instead, a one note, “coming-of-age” melodrama with a very solid turn from Ben Affleck but everything else crumbles at the surface. It proves Clooney should stop taking directing gigs for the easy paycheck considering his recent track record of “Suburbicon,” “The Monuments Men,” “The Midnight Sky” and now “The Tender Bar” represents a mediocre batting average devoid of vision, ingenuity, and creative heart.
Take his latest for example, a Long Island set drama that predominantly takes place in the early-to-mid eighties with Affleck sitting in the driver’s seat. The “Tender Bar,” so to speak, feels ripped from an old soundstage and then subsequently decorated and dressed by someone with literally no sense of place or location. If the movie didn’t say otherwise, you’d assume it took place in Boston.
Based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author J.R. Moehringer, “The Tender Bar” has all the hallmarks of a classic “boy had rough childhood but grew up to be something” troupe. Screenwriter William Monahan never differentiates the material from the countless imitators that didn’t have a best-selling book to work from. And between “Uncle Frank,” and “C’Mon, C’Mon,” it would seem audiences are living in the age of cool and hip uncles who tell it like it is. You know the type: they give unsolicited romantic advice, sleep on the couch, smoke a pack a day, and enjoy baseball. Nostalgia has a way of making us forget the unflattering moments of that cooky uncle, which is embodied here by a game Affleck who understood the assignment enough to try and weed out the script's malarkey.
Affleck’s Uncle Charlie runs a joint called The Dickens Bar, named after the author, and is the sole role model/father figure to young JR (Daniel Raineri). Of course, JR has daddy issues, whose papa is a local radio personality named The Voice and whenever he beams through the radio, his mother (Lily Rabe) destroys it. Nonetheless, The Voice tries making amends though each time disappoints the young JR who can’t seem to find his place in the world. (Let me bust out the world’s tiniest violin). Older JR is played by Tye Sheridan who feels just as lost and misplaced as the director behind the camera. One of the most nauseating running jokes (that I wouldn’t really call a joke) involves the explanation of his name every time somebody asks. Trust me, if you made drinking games out of this frivolous exercise, everyone would be intoxicated in 30 minutes.
The entire second half of “Tender Bar” puts a focus on JR’s path into Yale, at the behest of his mother, even though, in typical cliché fashion, nobody believes he can get in (I swear “The Tender Bar” is the spiritual cousin of last year’s equally mangled and preachy “Hillbilly Elegy.”) Sure enough, JR gets into Yale, because of course he does, with a full ride and ends up heartbroken by a girl with approximately three minutes of screen-time who then, for reasons unexplainable, becomes a major subplot for the rest of the movie. JR also keeps his dreams of being a writer alive despite the New York Times kicking him to the curb.
Underscored by a lazy narration device, “The Tender Bar” never generates much beyond passive watchability. Young Raineri is decent enough, but Sheridan, who I enjoyed in “Ready Player One,” doesn’t bring much warmth or charisma. You know what they say, attitude reflects leadership! But the grave mistake Clooney makes is asking audiences to stay invested in a story with no gravitas or weight. Even the predictable final standoff between JR and the Voice is so contrived and stagey, you look away in cringy disgust. “The Tender Bar” is a sinking ship buoyed by Affleck who manages to create something memorable out of scarcity. He’s having a great year (don’t sleep on “The Last Duel”) but there’s nothing he can do for a script that goes nowhere.
THE TENDER BAR opens in theaters Wednesday, December 22nd before debuting on Amazon Prime Friday, January 7th