When you’re at a festival populated by indie slow-burners, a maudlin, easy-to-watch soap opera can be a wonderful, soupy balm. Just before the pandemic sent the world into a pathological spiral, Berlin opened with My Salinger Year, a literary melodrama full of heart, if not all that memorable; Almodóvar’s smoothly swallowed Parallel Mothers, dropping similarly early in this year’s quality-packed Venice slate, brought with it both chicer-than-chic production and historical complexity (his robust thoughtfulness, of course, is less a redeeming quality to Almodóvar’s work so much as a defining element, as are his beautiful gowns).
The Tender Bar, on the other hand, does not have the heart of My Salinger Year, nor does it boast the thoughtfulness of even low-tier Almodóvar, save for some fun, redeeming zingers. The eighth directorial effort by the increasingly prolific George Clooney, and adapted from J.R. Moehringer’s Pulitzer-winning memoir, it’s a colour by numbers coming-of-ager; the outline drawn on tracing paper over an amalgamation of Stand by Me and every bookish biopic you’ve ever lazed in front of on a Sunday afternoon. It’s the sort of film which actually boasts either the balls, ineptitude, or complete lack of self-awareness to include the line “from that moment, I wanted to be a writer,” one of many line-reads to unintentionally elicit a laugh.
The film begins as myriad stories of wistful adolescence do: in a car, which is to say, at the beginning of a journey. With the rent five months past-due and stressors piling up like a stack of plump American pancakes, sweet little 5-to-10 year old ragamuffin J.R. (Daniel Ranieri, a child actor with big eyelashes) absconds with mom Dorothy (Lily Rabe) to his grandpa’s (Christopher Lloyd) in a forgotten little Long Island town. (Think Manchester by the Sea but with colour, albeit muddied and autumnal.) Grandpa’s is a domestic mixing pot, filled to the ceiling with family, and extended-extended family; they’re a boisterous bunch, reminding one every bit as much of the Simpsons as the household from Malcolm in the Middle.
Enter Ben Affleck, this time sans spandex, to once again save the day – or at least us from a slog: his Uncle Charlie, a mercurial bartender (Tender Bar? Bartender? Mind blown!) who is all at once J.R.’s greatest and worst influence, is a theatrical salve. With J.R’s deadbeat dad – the prickly voice on the radio – out of the picture, good ‘ol Uncle Charlie takes J.R. under his wing. Noticing the lad’s propensity for The Stories, he introduces him to the stack of books in his closet; despite his gruff, working class veneer, it turns out Charlie himself is a bit of a bookworm. To the (…rare) credit of screenwriter William Monahan, his characterisation is one of the more robust examples across the ensemble, imbued with enough idiosyncrasy to avoid chip-on-the-shoulder stock.
This is essentially why the eponymous Tender Bar, ostensibly run by – at least managed – Charlie, is called “The Dickens.” There’s a swathing mural of Charles Dickens painted on the outside wall; this booze house has books, too, ornate and leather, as if pilfered from a gothic, dusty manor. But said Tender Bar offers a handful of conundrums off the page. Although it’s titularly signposted to be the centre of J.R.’s adolescent universe, where he first becomes a man and his writerly instincts bloom into literary prestige, we only see the bar a handful of times. Other settings are equally impactful: the film could equally be titled The Tender Home, or The Tender University Campus. The lineup of beer-swilling barflies at The Dickens are posited to be uncle figures to J.R., too, if Charlie is the foster father-figure, but they’re as thin as coasters; relatedly, they’re little more than dressing.
Ranieri is generally good for a kid debutant, if indistinct (prior to the film’s premiere he was introduced as a “TikTok star,” and to wryly quote the late, great Norm MacDonald: all the stars are here!). Affleck is given more to do across the first fifty minutes, even if mostly to wax eloquent on the State of Things with a rag and glass in hand; on the whole, the film’s first half is stronger than the second. Tye Sheridan, at first in awkward flash-forwards and later exclusively, too steps into the J.R. role. Although a decided highlight of The Card Counter earlier this year, here he struggles to find a compelling cadence.
But perhaps it’s not entirely his fault. On the page, J.R. becomes increasingly capricious, his motivations flimsy and erratic: his central goal in the second half is to fall into the arms of a woman who repeatedly palms him off, which is to say, he becomes a simp. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but crucially, he’s a poorly written simp with a dissatisfying arc. As for Clooney’s directorial efforts, he’s mostly cruising at the wheel: there are awkward formal inflections, not the least discordant smash zooms a tad too evocative of The Office. More inadvertent humor, but hey: at least it’s giving you a laugh.
This review is from the BFI London Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release The Tender Bar in LA and NY on December 17, 2021 and then wide on December 22, 2021. It will then premiere globally on Amazon Prime Video January 7, 2022.
Photo: Claire Folger/Amazon Studios