The Tender Bar movie review: A cliché ridden coming-of-age film, (somewhat) saved by Ben Affleck

The Tender Bar movie director: George Clooney
The Tender Bar movie cast: Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Daniel Ranieri, Lily Rabe, and Christopher Lloyd
The Tender Bar movie rating: 2 stars

The Tender Bar is a coming-of-age film about a man who, for all intents and purposes, grew up in a bar. Based on a 2005 memoir by author and journalist JR Moehringer, the film is directed by George Clooney and scripted by William Monahan.

The man in question, played as a young boy by Daniel Ranieri and as an adult by Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), grows up with an absentee father. His doting mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe) has to go back to her father’s house in Long Island to give him the financial support and a chance at a prosperous life she never had.

JR does not find a whole lot of solace among the extended family. There is too much chaos. It is the nearby titular bar, called The Dickens after the legendary English author, that becomes JR’s sanctuary. It is run by his beloved uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck). Kind and gentle, but not coddling like his mother, he along with a few regulars at the bar dispense some rough-edged wisdom to the boy, eventually moulding him into the man he becomes. Charlie serves as a father stand-in.

And a good thing too, because his biological father (Max Martini) is a violent bully with an alcohol problem that he never acknowledges. We are never told what happened between him and JR’s mother, but we can guess.

His feeble attempts at parenting every now and then nevertheless delight young JR, and he cherishes those rare conversations. But for most of his life, his father is just The Voice. It’s a sad and wry moniker, for he works as a radio disc jockey in a New York station, and JR tunes in whenever he is attempting to form that emotional connection that forever remains elusive.

The highlight of The Tender Bar is Ben Affleck as Uncle Charlie. Affleck has previously expressed disillusionment with big IP roles like Batman, the preparation involved and unreasonable fan expectations that come with it. In The Tender Bar, he seems to be back doing what he does, and is clearly enjoying himself. It’s a pretty meaty role for somebody who is not a lead. The best scenes in the movie are invariably those that include him. The performances are overall good, as well, although Sheridan appears curiously detached from the proceedings. It is hard to tell whether that’s him or the script required a poker face.

Sadly, the rest of the film does not make as much of an impact. It’s not it’s completely unwatchable, but you need to lower your expectations down a notch, and then some more.

Even then, you might be surprised at how the film does not affect you. Despite its (potentially) heavy themes, the scripts treats most of what’s happening as insubstantial. It is as though Clooney was on the fence as to where to keep the film — steer it towards utterly feel-good ​territory, or include darker elements that would have made it a bit more compelling. The result is a tonal mess.

This scribe admits ignorance regarding the source material, but judging purely by the script, the story itself feels too lightweight to warrant a film adaptation. Even moments that should be life-altering for JR are treated with a dispassionate air. These are supposedly true events, but there is nothing in there we have not seen before in coming-of-age stories. A decent script would have lent some heft.

As it is, the film is hard to recommend.

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