The Tender Bar is George Clooney’s (Good Night, and Good Luck) new heartfelt coming of age dramedy. It tells the story of JR as he grows up in the wake of a broken home in Long Island. Played as a boy by the adorable Daniel Ranieri and as a young adult by Tye Sheridan (Mud, The Card Counter, Ready Player One), we know – as the film’s title card helpfully informs – that JR is destined to be a writer as this film is based upon his memoir. Clooney eschews the sort of harrowing tone that oft informs divorce stories in favor of something uplifting and kind.
George Clooney fascinates me as a director. Throughout his career, the actor turned auteur has shown a clear knack for getting strong performances from his actors. He came storming out of the gate with a wonderful black comedy, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and a lost modern classic, the Edward R. Murrow focused Good Night, and Good Luck. It was clearly the voice of a smart and extremely well read filmmaker, albeit an indistinct one. His next few films started to lose the thread: the ineffective period sports dramedy Leatherheads, the political awards bait thriller The Ides of March, and the ill conceived The Monuments Men. Clooney began to get the feel of a downmarket Steven Soderbergh – someone at ease across all genres and budgets, but without the distinct voice Soderbergh brings to his projects. Suburbicon feels like a shoddy homage to the Coens Brothers. I’m one of the rare defenders of The Midnight Sky. To me, it felt as though Clooney found a personal voice again, despite the artifice of a big budget Netflix science fiction production, by leaning into a warm hearted view of humanity. It’s a film rife with decency, communal sacrifice, and hope despite an overarching end of the world narrative.
The Tender Bar leans even further into that sense of kindness and uplift. The film consciously echoes The Wonder Years with an overbearing narration setting the scene throughout. It is at times flagrantly manipulative of our emotions, even though most of the “tension” is undercut both by the story’s inevitable ending and the film’s overall low stakes feel. Once upon a time, I’d have chastised a movie for daring to lean into the positive aspects of life. I think every film nerd, especially male ones, has the tendency to associate warmth with weakness and sentiment with lacking intellect. I’m glad that I’ve grown beyond that. It’s almost certainly the result of becoming a father, but I’m grateful that I’m not so cold and myopic as to turn my back on the simple joy of great actors palling around telling a warm family story. It’s here, it’s CODA, it’s Belfast. Not every film needs to be a searing indictment of the dark soul of humanity – it’s ok to spend two hours with likable “better than real life” characters from time to time.
The ensemble here is wonderful. From a never better Lily Rabe (The Undoing, Vice) as JR’s supportive mom to the great Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Nobody) as JR’s eccentric grandpa, each performer elevates the material. But I really want to talk about Ben Affleck. I saw the film at an awards screening largely populated by SAG voting members. About 20 minutes into the movie after Affleck’s 3rd or 4th scene, an elderly woman behind me spontaneously let loose with “Oh boy! He is wonderful here!” I couldn’t agree more. It’s too easy and lazy a narrative to fully associate the Affleckissaince with the actor’s sobriety but the last two years have seen Affleck famously and publicly get clean and then deliver perhaps the three strongest performance of his career: first as an alcoholic basketball coach in last year’s wonderful character drama The Way Back, earlier this year in a ribald supporting turn in Ridley Scott’s stupendous and measured The Last Duel [The Last Duel: The Search for Truth and Ben Affleck’s Oscar], and now here as the coolest uncle ever.
A young JR spends many a day at Uncle Charlie’s bar, Dickens. Charlie’s barstool wisdom – the musings of a man profoundly well read but held back by his predilection for gambling – come to fill the void left by JR’s own largely absent father. Affleck is gruffly supportive and chews the scenery in just the right way to occupy the headspace JR would have of his beloved uncle. The film comes alive whenever he is on screen. Twenty five years ago, Affleck was viewed as a potential leading man for the ages and this serves as a good reminder why. It’s a Movie Star performance through and through tempered with just the right spice of Affleck’s own meta-narrative. Of course, Ben Affleck would excel as the world’s most charismatic and decent disappointment.
Perhaps it’s more than just fatherhood. Maybe the sum total effect of the profound American cultural tension and an unending pandemic have made me soft. A billion dollars worth of people around the world are about to go see Spider-Man: No Way Home for that same sort of emotional outlet I found in The Tender Bar. Either way, I’m making the decision that it’s ok to appreciate a film so warmly acted and well made that dares to leave you with the message “things are gonna work out in the end.”
The Tender Bar will be released in select theaters on December 17 and will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on January 7.