Film Review: ‘The Tender Bar’: A Writer Comes of Age

By Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
November 25, 2021 Updated: November 25, 2021

December 17, 2021 | R | 1h 44m

“The Tender Bar” is George Clooney’s eighth directorial project. Adapted from J.R. Moehringer’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning memoir, it’s the story of how a young man came to be a writer.

We’re introduced to the child version of said young man, J.R. (Daniel Ranieri), circa 1973, riding in a car with his mom, Dorothy (Lily Rabe). They’re headed to his grandpa’s (Christopher Lloyd) house in Manhasset, on Long Island, New York, because she wasn’t able to make rent for five months.

mother and son hug in THE TENDER BAR
Mom (Lily Rabe) and J.R. (Daniel Ranieri), in “The Tender Bar.” (Smokehouse Pictures/Amazon Studios)

Grandpa’s house is sort of like the Weasely family’s in the “Harry Potter” books, minus the magic. Or TV’s “Shameless” family—always packed to the rafters with family and friends. There’s always a din and hubbub happening, with grandpa sitting in the middle of it all, cheerily committing acts of flatulence and placing the blame elsewhere.

grandfather and grandson in THE TENDER BAR
Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) and J.R. (Daniel Ranieri), in “The Tender Bar.” (Smokehouse Pictures/Amazon Studios)

The Bartender

Ben Affleck, the, er, titular bartender—Tender Bar, bar-tender—is J.R.’s Uncle Charlie, the most stable older male figure in young J.R.’s life. J.R’s real dad (Max Martini) is a no-good, narcissistic alcoholic known as “The Voice,” a local radio DJ who ran out on J.R.’s mom, and he does stuff like call his son out of the blue, say he’s got baseball tickets, and never show.

The best scene involving father and son is at once funny and tragic: Cool, chain-smoking, gangsta-leaning dad picks up J.R. in his rumbling Toronado (J.R. stands for “Junior” of course), and proceeds to go for a spin, like to the beach or somewhere. Except it eventually dawns on you that Senior is continuously making right turns, and soon they’re back at the house, having driven around the block. Quality dad time.

Uncle Charlie notices that the kid’s got talent with words—as in, they play that game (I don’t know what it’s called) where, if the topic is “Richard Nixon” and the clue is “Richard’s ingredients,” you gotta find something related that rhymes. Little J.R. comes up with “Nixon’s fixin’s” without batting an eyelash.

man and boy in bowling alley in THE TENDER BAR
J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) and Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), in “The Tender Bar.” (Smokehouse Pictures/Amazon Studios)

Uncle Charlie doesn’t mince words. He tells the kid that he doesn’t think sports are his thing and that he should stick to books, whereupon he introduces J.R. to a closet full of books and tells J.R. to read ’em all. Uncle Charlie’s a closet bookworm, literally. But this business of hewing to the working class while being exceedingly well-read fits Affleck like a glove. It’s one of his favorite things, having run interference while his buddy Matt Damon played halfback with this particular type of role in their award-winning movie “Good Will Hunting.”

a bar with cars parked outside in THE TENDER BAR
The drinking establishment The Dickens, in “The Tender Bar.” (Smokehouse Pictures/Amazon Studios)

The actual Tender Bar where Charlie tends bar is named “The Dickens.” It’s got a mural of Charles Dickens on the wall and is as much lined with books as with beer pitchers and baskets of peanuts. This becomes J.R.’s adolescent world: There’s a slew of barfly “uncle” regulars in there who help shape J.R.’s, er, Weltanschauung. But despite the movie’s title, the bar is not emphasized; there’s just as much featuring of the Weasely-like home shenanigans as well as the Yale University campus.

a crowd scene in THE TENDER BAR
J.R. (Tye Sheridan, front C), in “The Tender Bar.” (Smokehouse Pictures/Amazon Studios)

Yale comes into view in the second half, with Tye Sheridan as the collegiate J.R., who’s goal in life (or rather his mom’s goal for him to become a lawyer) is quickly subjugated by a romantic obsession with a young woman (Briana Middleton) who genuinely likes him but toys with him.

She’s already got a better-looking, financially more well-off boyfriend, and J.R. is too young and naive in the ways of women to recognize that he can’t compete with all that nest-building material, with mere bookish dreams of being a writer. She dumps him. Repeatedly. It’s a little agonizing but provides some humor, such as with Uncle Charlie saying, “Don’t tell me you …” and then the cut to a shot of J.R. ugly-crying up at her dorm window in a rainstorm.

Does J.R. get the girl? Does he get hired at The New York Times? Does he get to stay? Does he, à la “Good Will Hunting,” get in a car and drive away in search of his destiny?

two men and a woman in a living room in THE TENDER BAR
Mom (Lily Rabe) and Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), in “The Tender Bar.” (Smokehouse Pictures/Amazon Studios)

Performances

Now that Ben Affleck is middle-aged, has publicly beat alcohol, and is back with the love of his life, Jennifer Lopez, he’s bringing new gravitas to his work. It looks good on him. Tye Sheridan is fun, and Briana Middleton and young Daniel Ranieri are talents we’ll be seeing more of.

Max Martini specializes in special operations war-fighters with deep integrity, so it was slightly disconcerting to see how easily he slipped into the role of an outrageously inauthentic loser.

When George Clooney hit his directorial high point with “Good Night, and Good Luck,” it looked like he’d join the reigning short list of dependable, quality directors, but there’s a bit of blandness going on in “The Tender Bar.” It’s understandable.

Acting and directing are two related but different animals. Ben Affleck might direct better than he acts. Robert Redford definitely does; Ron Howard as well. But while all mentioned are movie stars, Clooney’s the best actor of the bunch, so it’s forgivable if his directing is a little hit or miss. He’s a bona fide storyteller and his intended integrity is unquestioned. And I, for one, love stories about salt-of-the-earth America, and about chasing one’s dreams.

two men in a bar in THE TENDER BAR
Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck, L) and J.R. (Tye Sheridan), in “The Tender Bar.” (Smokehouse Pictures/Amazon Studios)

‘The Tender Bar’
Director: George Clooney
Starring: Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, Max Martini, Briana Middleton, Daniel Ranieri
Running Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Dec. 17, 2021
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.