I will be blunt to start: George Clooney may be as acquired a taste as his endorsement for Nescafe. His stock may be slowly rising more behind the camera as opposed to in front, and last year he ran for some frozen roses with his barren wasteland sci-fi The Midnight Sky. There was a decent plot to be found, and finite character strengths. One year separated, he’s quickly followed up with a film tethered to the ground, possibly too deep down to resonate past a first glimpse. Adapted by William Monahan from J.R. Moehringer’s potentially denser memoir, The Tender Bar left me dry, confused, and witless, uncertain of any direction it was hoping to veer toward.
Set on sun-bleached Long Island in the mid-70s, we find young JR (Daniel Ranieri) simply looking for a father figure to look up to. His birth dad was never around much; when he does, he can promise a lot, like Mets tickets. But then deliver little, less than the bare minimum. Instead, he finds a source of wisdom with his uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), a bar owner who’s a bit of a bookworm. His enthusiasm passes over firmly to JR, challenged right from that young age to become a writer, with aspirations of time at Yale and perhaps a newspaper internship.
Even with the outpouring of support from his beer-slinging uncle, his cancer-battling mother (Lily Rabe) and a rabble-rousing grandpa (Christopher Lloyd in genuine subprime material), grownup JR (Tye Sheridan) still faces a rocky path to conquer, with a mountain of self-doubt spurred by a lackluster romance with classmate Sidney (Brianna Middleton), low job prospects and a struggle to refine his written voice. Plenty of a conflict to service Clooney’s mild vision, but not enough energy or conviction to convey its non-linear expressiveness.
I simply felt nothing for the story, no connection, and no emotional current to latch onto. Not unlike the whole of Midnight Sky, this synopsis comes off very barren and wasted on. I could sense an efficient thematic weight in Monahan’s adaptation, covering the trial and error of human endeavor, the plight of a starving artist invoking his craft. Yes, going into newspapers after college does count, and it’s not as easy as the niche observer may be willing to guess. But these ideas, and that lackluster romantic chemistry between Middleton and Sheridan, do not leave fair results, wandering between scenarios without a clear sense of direction or conflict.
The visual palette is somewhat drab and uninspiring, in separate merits. Apart from scenes involving freedom-centric 70s joyriding in a top down convertible, the style offers so little for the imagination. The book could’ve crafted the bar’s image more capably than what Kalina Ivanov (Long Shot) chooses to play with. Charlie’s workplace wouldn’t look any different compared to a hipster watering hole on a cable sitcom. With all the masterworks of famous authors filling up each wall, it merges a typical east coast bar with the mood of a Borders.
With such a deficient backdrop, comes an equal lack of care with characters. Even that doesn’t improve from one half of Clooney’s film to the second. Ranieri’s youthful breeziness inadvertently eclipses Sheridan’s motivation with the same character. With age, JR is seen to be even less interesting, and a touch cynical in the wake of professional and personal rejection. Despite any manner of best intentions, Sheridan only serves to deepen the effect of flatlining. Affleck experiences similar struggles in keeping Charlie above water. Even with top-billing, JR’s adult role model exudes some charm, but more in the way of dark acerbity, hobbling his depth and impact to that of a mere utility player. Rabe fares much better as the mom who knows exactly what he wants for his son, stubborn even through ailments. As does Lloyd, whose output as an actor has understandably slowed down as of late. His screen time is limited in that regard, but that’s plenty to compliment what was already a good year for the former time traveler with his underrated turn in Nobody.
For whatever muscle it flexes with his commanding cast, that doesn’t help to steer Clooney’s advantageous mindset back on course. It’s very possible with The Tender Bar, the book works better, knowing it’s straight from the author’s fingers versus a cinematic adaptation that doesn’t even attempt to graze the bullseye. Clooney still knows how to make a compelling picture, and it’s not entirely his worst effort to date. So he’s evolved some, but I was personally unconvinced I was viewing something of complete merit. Beyond a few fleeting moments bringing Affleck’s prowess into focus, of course. It’s simply impossible to recommend this film beyond its performances, aware its plot lacked a real goal or an antagonism to tinker with. Or even much to ponder in long-term memory, it’s that forgettable. Stick with the memoir; I wish I had. (D+; 2/5 Horns Up!)
The Tender Bar arrives in limited release December 22, bowing at home on Prime Video January 7; rated R for language throughout and some sexual content; 104 minutes.