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Review: The Tender Bar

January 20, 2022

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The Tender Bar, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, is an adaptation of writer J.R. Moehringer’s memoir of the same name about growing up on Long Island and hanging out at his uncle’s bar. The result is a pretty standard coming of age movie that still has a decent amount of warmth to it, including a nice Ben Affleck performance.

The first half of the film focuses on JR as a young boy (played by Daniel Ranieri) being raised by his single mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe). He is estranged from his deadbeat radio DJ dad (Max Martini) in New York, who is known simply as “The Voice.” JR is named after him, but this becomes a source of embarrassment, so he starts refusing to tell people what his initials stand for.

At the start of the film, Dorothy and JR are going back to live with his codgerly grandfather (Christopher Lloyd), whose house has become a revolving door of cousins and relatives. One of these relatives is Dorothy’s sister, Uncle Charlie (Affleck), who still lives at home and doesn’t have kids of his own, but treats JR like a son.

Uncle Charlie is a self-educated man who operates a bar called The Dickens, that serves as the local watering hole for a number of regular patrons. He’s the prototypical “cool uncle,” the guy who treats you with maturity while still serving as a parental figure, offering sage life advice on the responsibilities of being a man. Recognizing that his nephew isn’t very good at sports, he instead provides him with stacks of books to read, and encourages him to become a writer.

The second half focuses on JR (played as a young adult by Tye Sheridan) pursuing his mother’s dreams of him going to Yale, and it follows all the beats that we expect from this type of film as the working class kid falls for a rich girl (Briana Middleton). The biggest downfall of The Tender Bar is that we have seen variations of this story before, and done better. Recently, C’mon C’mon did a better job of probing an uncle-nephew relationship, and The Spectacular Now was a more impactful portrait of a young man reconciling with an alcoholic, absentee father.

It’s cliched in both narrative and construction, including sentimental voiceover narration provided by Ron Livingston as the adult version of JR looking back on his youth. But none of these things make The Tender Bar a bad movie, or even an unenjoyable one. Clooney’s direction might lack character, but it is competent, and he does a serviceable job of shepherding this story to the screen. Affleck’s very good performance further elevates it. He really is the film’s main anchor, with his warm, slightly weathered presence adding a great deal of heart to the story.

This is not the best film of its ilk, but it works on its own terms as cinematic comfort food that wraps around us like a blanket. This might sound like I am damning it with faint praise, but I will leave you with this; if The Tender Bar had been a film from the 1990s that I stumbled across on TV in my own adolescence, it probably would have had a big impact on me. It’s a warm and familiar film, and while that doesn’t make it a great one, it does make it a pretty enjoyable one to watch.

The Tender Bar is now available to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

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