‘THE Tender Bar’ is the 8th film directed by George Clooney. He started exactly 10 years ago with “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”. His latest work is a nostalgic comedy-drama scripted by William Monahan based on the 2005 memoir of writer JR Moehringer (co-writer of Prince Harry’s autobiography) about his growing up years in Long Island in the 70s and 80s.
The story starts with JR now 60 years old and tells his life in flashback. It starts in 1973 with JR as a 9-year old boy (Daniel Raineri) whose mom Dorothy (Lily Rabe) just separated from his dad, a DJ (Max Martini), and decides that they should just return home to his cranky grandfather (Christopher Lloyd) in Manhasset, Long Island, which is already populated by other relatives.
Among the many colorful characters he meets is the brother of his mom, Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), who drives a long Cadillac and is a bartender in a bar he owns called The Dickens. Charlie acts as a surrogate dad to the boy and teaches him about a lot of things.
Charlie is not some dumb relative but a book lover and voracious reader whose cabinet is full of books, like the works of Charles Dickens for whom he named his bar. In his voice over narration, JR says that when you’re a young boy, you need an Uncle Charlie, who taught him how to play bowling, change a tire, control your drinking and never under any circumstances, hit a woman.
Charlie tells him to study philosophy because “there’s never a wrong answer” and “if you suck at writing, that’s when you become a journalist.” His mom finds work as a secretary and is determined to give him the opportunities that were denied to her.
She is very tenacious in her decision that he goes to college and take up law in either Yale or Harvard. She drums this up into him, but as a teener (Tye Sheridan), JR realizes that what he really wants is to be a writer and his Uncle Charlie encourages him in this aspiration of his.
He makes it to Yale but the movie somehow loses its steam at this point as JR falls in love for the first time. It’s with a beautiful black girl named Sydney (Brianna Middleton), who quickly goes to bed with him. He falls hopelessly in love with her but the problem is she doesn’t repay his devotion and dumps him.
Through the years, he would unexplainably go back to her and repeatedly, she would just hurt him with some kind of callousness. The struggles of JR in his love and young career are all good material for a very involving movie but sadly, the script and Clooney’s direction do not knit it all well together even if they try to use music to cover up the tedious portions.
The film’s soundtrack is full of hit songs of the previous years that are enough to make you feel nostalgic, from Paul Simon’s “50 Years to Leave Your Lover” and Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” to Steely Dan’s “Do It Again”, which is the final song. Most of them are classic rock that will bring you to a trip down memory lane.
When one is adapting a memoir into a film, it’s very important that the subject has a truly engaging life that viewers would want to watch. We think Clooney has lost sight of this when he chose to do JR’s memoir. We’re afraid that his recollections are not that particularly riveting, unlike let’s say another nostalgic coming-of-age film shown this year, “Belfast”, which just won the Oscar best original screenplay award. The non-linear way of storytelling didn’t help at all as it causes the narrative to stall and lose momentum.
We also think that Tye Sheridan is not ideal for the lead role. He’s good as the young hero in Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” and as the autistic lead in “The Night Clerk”, but we need someone more charismatic and magnetic in the lead role of JR, the dumb heartbreak kid with his unrequited love.
And it’s too bad that he gets upstaged by Ben Affleck as Uncle Charlie who brings the film to vivid life. He gives it a very low key charming portrayal and doesn’t chew up the scenery just to show he can act. As a director, Clooney doesn’t show much of an affinity to the story and we wish we could feel more affection for the assortment of characters we meet in the film to make the drama of this basically coming-of-age story more involving and resonant. The truth is, most of the films he directed are cumbersome and lifeless. He’s really better off as an actor.