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Ben Affleck Shines in George Clooney's Low-Key 'The Tender Bar'

By Dustin Rowles | Film | January 10, 2022 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | January 10, 2022 |


As good an actor and personality as he is, George Clooney’s directorial efforts all seem to follow a certain formula: They’re well cast, but often underwhelming. That doesn’t make them bad movies — Ides of March is phenomenal, and Good Night and Good Luck is … well, it’s fine — but they do tend to be quiet and workmanlike, like Steven Soderbergh’s minor efforts. There’s no muss, but it’s often that muss that gives a film its personality, its crackle. Clooney’s films are like Clooney himself: Smart and stylistic, but they lack emotional depth.

The Tender Bar is no exception. It’s a fine movie from screenwriter William Monahan, based on the memoir of Pulitzer Prize-winning J.R. Moehringer, but 95 percent of its charms come from Ben Affleck’s outstanding supporting turn. It is performances like this — and the one in The Last Duel a couple of months ago — that make it impossible for me to quit Ben Affleck.

In The Tender Bar, Affleck plays Charlie, a bar owner and uncle to Tye Sheridan’s JR. It’s tempting to call him a father figure since much of the movie is about JR’s lack of one, but Charlie decidedly fills that cool uncle role, the guy who encourages JR to read, bails him out of trouble, and offers wisdom and advice from the backseat. He’s basically his Good Will Hunting character if Chuckie Sullivan were a middle-aged bar owner on Long Island. He’s a townie, but wants nothing more than for his nephew to escape. It is the perfect role for Affleck.

When Affleck is not onscreen, however, The Tender Bar is slight, notwithstanding the immense talents of Tye Sheridan (Mud, The Night Clerk), Lily Rabe (who plays his mom), and Christopher Lloyd as the grandpa. It’s based on the early life of Moehringer, but unfortunately, the lives of real people often do not fit perfectly within three-act structures, despite Clooney and Monahan’s best and sometimes clever attempts to provide the film with a beginning, middle, and end. The first act is young JR dealing with an absent father, accepting advice from his uncle, and learning to love reading. The second act is JR dealing with an absent father, accepting advice from his uncle, and learning to love women. The third act, is JR confronting his absent father while accepting advice from his uncle and learning to love himself.

The film is reminiscent of another slight coming-of-age movie based on a memoir, Tobias Wolff This Boys Life, which likewise features strong performances from Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio. It, too, lacks emotional payoff. “Getting accepted into college” or “leaving home” may feel like profound accomplishments, but they do not translate well on film. “Good for him” may be a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t pluck at the heartstrings. That’s doubly so for The Tender Bar because while Wolff was at least escaping an abusive father, JR is leaving a … loving and supportive family (minus a father), who just happens to live in a dead-end town.

The Tender Bar may lack for conflict, but it is gentle and wistful. It’s a lovely minor-key film. It’s definitely worth watching and not just because of Affleck, but mostly because of Affleck.

The Tender Bar is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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