It might not be a film which gets the blood pressure rising, or goes for big and bold dramatic moments, but George Clooney‘s The Tender Bar is a well honed coming of age drama which delivers in a heartfelt and well intentioned way.
Based on J. R. Moehringer’s best selling memoir of the same name, The Tender Bar follows young J.R. (Daniel Ranieri and Tye Sheridan) as he grows up in and around the The Dickens, the Long Island bar owned by his uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck). Brought up by a single mother (Llily Rabe), J.R. dreams of being a writer and the film charts his ups and downs as he tries to achieve his dream.
The Tender Bar is George Clooney’s most satisfying film as director. Eschewing genre trappings or overt messages, Clooney has made a relaxed picture which moves and sets its own pace. It’s a simple story, well told and it works well because of this. William Monahan’s screenplay is as straight as an arrow and Clooney ensures each scene counts and every performance matters.
It’s the performances which really make The Tender Bar sing. Daniel Ranieri makes for an exuberant (but never precocious) J.R. and Tye Sheridan is excellent as the college age version of the character. Sheridan has had an impressive 2021 – turning in great roles in this and Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter. Christopher Lloyd adds good value as J.R’s curmudgeonly grandfather and Max Martini adds a bit of grit as his estranged D.J. father.
However, the performance which really makes The Tender Bar work is Ben Affleck‘s turn as Charlie, J.R.’s boozy uncle. Affleck continues to grow as an actor, delivering performances with gravitas and charisma. In 2020 Affleck excelled in Gavin O’Connor’s sporting drama, The Way Back and he builds on that with with his work in Clooney’s film. He’s leaning into the character actor phase of his career and he certainly seems to be embracing this by delivering great work in smaller movies.
Cinematographer Martin Ruhe perfectly captures The Tender Bar‘s ’70s and ’80s setting, adding a rose-tinted sheen to Clooney’s film, giving it the look of a well-worn photograph. Dara Taylor’s score matches the tone of Clooney’s film and it’s loaded with some terrific songs from the era including several Jackson Browne numbers and the Stone Poney’s cover of Michael Nesmith‘s different drum.
Not a film for the cynical, The Tender Bar is a drama which sets out to do exactly what George Clooney wants it to do. It might lack overly complex plot complications, but it works as an entertaining old-fashioned film. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.