In Cinemas

The Tender Bar – Ben Affleck elevates a middling memoir adaptation

George Clooney’s eighth directorial outing doesn’t reinvent the wheel for coming-of-age dramas, but it rolls along nicely enough

There have been a couple of notable, dastardly cinematic Uncle Charlies over the years. In both Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, an Uncle Charlie rolls into the protagonist’s life, all charming and charismatic until their murderous secrets begin to unspool. In George Clooney’s The Tender Bar, however, adapted from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J. R. Moehringer’s memoir, we are introduced to an altogether more amiable Uncle Charlie in the form of a vivified Ben Affleck, whose lived-in portrayal of J.R.’s wise-cracking, bartending relative turns an otherwise middling, nostalgic drama into something more memorable.

We first meet J.R. as a child in the early 70s, an era evoked adeptly through the meticulous chaos of Kalina Ivanov’s detail-heavy production design, Jenny Eagan’s carefully selected (often collar-popping) outfits, and Clooney’s drivetime radio needle drops. Played by TikTok star Daniel Ranieri, whose surprisingly mature turn here shows he can do much more than F-Bomb rants (though we still get plenty of those), J.R. is a kid whose life is defined by love and dysfunction. He’s a curious soul who searches for his estranged radio host dad (Max Martini) on the airwaves as his doting mother (a tenacious yet tender Lily Rabe), grandmother (Sondra James), begrudgingly soft-centred grandfather (Christopher Lloyd), and Uncle Charlie all muck in to make sure he doesn’t suffer in his father’s absence.

It is the magnetic Charlie above all else, though, who J.R. latches onto and idolises, who teaches him the importance of having someone in life who believes in you. In fact, it’s a conversation with Charlie at his uncle's cosily furnished bar, populated by nurturing patrons with names like Chief and Bobo, that inspires J.R. to pursue his passion for books and become a writer. And so, as he matures into adulthood – and a dependable Tye Sheridan takes Ranieri’s place – we watch him pursue that dream whilst navigating the world of romance, friendship, and Yale while dodging the looming shadow cast by his alcoholic, absent father.

The Tender Bar is at its best when J.R. and Charlie share the screen, allowing Clooney to intimately explore a, well, tender form of masculinity we rarely glimpse on film. Watching Affleck grinning and disappearing into Charlie’s mannerisms as he bestows J.R. with the life lessons he has picked up over the years provides a perpetual source of entertainment, while their increasingly frank conversations and their uninhibited displays of affection for one another hold a sincerity and specificity that is lacking elsewhere.

With Moehringer having expertly told this story for himself in print already and Clooney deciding to skim over the pain J.R. harbours (to his film’s detriment), William Monahan’s screenplay – with its innate bookish quality – feels stunted in a way that Clooney lacks the invention to cinematically liberate. His inexplicable use of sitcom style zooms affirms that while the filmmaker certainly knows how to direct actors, he’s far less adept at directing cameras, and the imposition of Ron Livingston’s “Future J.R.” as narrator feels like an expository crutch more than a conscious creative decision.

The Tender Bar has enough period embellishment and performance nous to ensure it will find fans amongst those looking for a life-affirming Bildungsroman with minimal tension. But while its sensitive portrayal of male bonding and Affleck’s charismatic work help to elevate Clooney’s film, it's hard not to feel like there’s little here that hasn't been done – and done better – before.

The Tender Bar was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It is released in UK cinemas on 17 November.

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