'The Tender Bar' review: Barkeep, cut this customer off
George Clooney-directed drama is a non-starter.
A character study with no sense of character, "The Tender Bar" is a watered down coming of age story that goes down like a cheap drink.
George Clooney, whose spotty directorial record includes more misses than hits, directs this adaptation of J.R. Moehringer's 2005 memoir without a sense for its Long Island setting or the bar where much of its formative action unfolds.
That bar, a dive called the Dickens where the patrons are like trivia-quoting bar stools and old books line the walls, should be able to be felt through its worn bar, its weathered flooring and the fog of cigarette smoke that hangs in the air. None of that comes across here. Change out the period decor and the place is as generic as a strip mall chain bar.
It's the late '70s/ early '80s and J.R. — played by Daniel Ranieri as a boy and later by Tye Sheridan as a young man — is growing up without a father. Ben Affleck plays his uncle Charlie, who becomes his role model and the stand-in for his deadbeat dad, a radio personality known as "The Voice" (Max Martini, a fantastic name for an actor in a movie about a bar) who only comes around once in a blue moon.
It's up to Charlie to show J.R. the ropes and to teach him guy stuff (take care of your mother, be a good son, etc.). J.R. is on a path to law school at Yale, following the wishes of his mother (Lily Rabe), though his heart veers toward writing.
He starts dating a rich girl (Briana Middleton) and their situation seems casual until it is suddenly treated as the defining relationship of his life, an example of the storytelling's inconsistency. Part of the problem is J.R. is a dud as a character and Sheridan, a talented child actor struggling to transition to adult roles, has no spark in the role. And Clooney's lack of feel for the material renders it even more distant.
Affleck, for his part, has an unpolished charm as the blue collar philosopher doling out advice and drinks until last call comes around, and a story more centered on his character might have more to offer. (Between this and "The Last Duel," Affleck had a great year reinventing himself in small roles.) As it is, "The Tender Bar" coasts along but never gets deeper than small talk with a barkeep. Check, please.
'The Tender Bar'
Rated R: for language throughout and some sexual content
Running time: 104 minutes
In theaters, on Amazon Prime Video Jan. 7