Those who have spent the last year and a half desperately missing the dingy and lightly debauched comfort of a local dive bar will find little relief in The Tender Bar. Directed by George Clooney from a script by The Departed’s William Monahan, adapting J.R. Moehringer’s bestselling memoir, the film presents a sanitized and flavorless view of the bar life.
The stools are dotted with supposedly colorful characters, but the film has no actual interest in who they are or what keeps them perched there. The drinks are poured by an aggressively avuncular barkeep, a charming fellow who — when he is not pouring stiff ones — exists solely to dispense hard won advice to our impressionable hero J.R., played by Daniel Ranieri as a boy and Tye Sheridan as a young man.
THE TENDER BAR ★★
Don’t ever hit a woman, he says, even if she stabs you with scissors. Never trust a man who drinks well scotch. Always keep a secret stash of cash in your wallet that you don’t spend on booze.
These lively bits of counsel are dispensed by J.R.’s Uncle Charlie, played with a slouching, throwaway masculinity by Ben Affleck. This is Affleck nicely downshifting into classic Good Will Hunting mode. Once again, he seems more than happy to play the easygoing second banana puffing cigarettes while shuttling his friends around in some sweet wheels and always quick to the aid of his wicked smart buddy.
Uncle Charlie’s outside interests— reading books and doing word puzzles— exist chiefly to foster the literary development of his nephew, who has moved with his down on her luck mother (an undervalued Lily Rabe) into the shambling home resentfully presided over by his family’s flatulent, ornery patriarch (Christopher Lloyd). Meanwhile, J.R. becomes fixated on his deadbeat dad, a New York City disc jockey whose mellifluous baritone haunts him over the airwaves. (The father is played with menacing detachment by Max Martini.)
While the movie displays an almost criminal lack of curiosity towards most of these secondary characters, at least this early section twinkles with a grimy yet joyful nostalgia, one that will prove especially effecting for those whose childhoods were bathed in the secondary smoke of their aunts’ and uncles’ Pall Malls.
In the second half, when J.R heads off to Yale and finds himself in the thrall of a sexually liberated fellow undergrad (newcomer Briana Middleton), the film loses its spark altogether.
J.R. may have grown up to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a top paid ghostwriter (Moehringer reportedly pocketed seven figures for his work on Prince Harry’s upcoming memoir), but his dorm room years were simply not compelling enough to deserve this much attention, no matter how many copies his memoir sold.
Part of the issue is the director.
Now on his eighth film at the helm, Clooney inspires loose and unforced performances from his talented cast and, along with his DP Martin Ruhe (the German cinematographer also shot Clooney’s Netflix sci-fi from last year, Midnight Sky), he swathes his performers in burnished autumn light that faithfully recalls Long Island afternoons. But his direction lacks tension, purpose, and most alarmingly, any discernible point of view. As happens sometimes after spending too many hours drinking too much at your neighborhood local, one is left to wonder what was the point of that?
Uncle Charlie’s signature drink is minimalist perfection: a gin martini to which he adds a few splashes of scotch. If only The Tender Bar had that kind of focus and bite.
Instead, we get a rum and coke that’s been left unattended on the bar for a half-an-hour. It’s diluted, a little flat, but sweet and familiar enough to evoke long ago memories, if not quite strong enough to give you a reason to bother to remember.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.