Director(s): George Clooney
Writer(s): William Monahan
Cast: Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Daniel Ranieri
The Tender Bar is the newest “memoir movie” from director George Clooney. The Tender Bar tells the story of Jr – the lack of periods are on purpose and important for the character as he never knows his real name and prefers to just go by Junior throughout the film – an aspiring writer with a deadbeat father (Max Martini) and a supportive family.
What The Tender Bar has going against it is that this is the same story told time and time again. Memoir movies usually convey the same stories and the same messages from story to story that causes the films to feel outdated. Here, we see JR, played early on by Daniel Ranieri and later played by Tye Sheridan, battling the demons of not really knowing a father, but also being the only seeming hope for his entire family.
As the story moves through JR’s life Clooney shows the path that has been laid out for JR by the people around him, most notably his mom, however, one specific question starts to loom over the film as a whole. What is this movie saying? All we ever know about JR is he has a bad father and comes from a poor home. We know he wants to be a writer, and it has been his dream to be one ever since he was a kid, but the journey to get to the end of the film is as glossed over as a film can be.
From a young age, we are told JR has “it” when it comes to writing. He is told this by his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), a bar owner who is also an avid reader – the bar he owns is named “The Dickens” after author Charles Dickens. While the “it” is supposed to be metaphorical, his writing throughout the film is dwindled down to just that, it. He never struggles in his writing, and he also never – or at least it is never touched on – uses his life experiences in his writing.
The film manages to make it seem like writing is absolute. Either you have what it takes, or you don’t. JR apparently had what it took, and throughout made it seem like getting places with your writing was an easy task. All you had to do was read some books, and have the it factor that gave you natural talent disappointing. JR does have a hard upbringing, his father has an abusive nature towards him, his mom, alcohol, and basically anyone else. These small moments between JR and his father are played off as just that, moments; these moments never manage to culminate into something greater for JR, just a hoop he has to jump through.
Getting away from the story, the direction left so much to be desired. George Clooney is an Oscar nominated Director, Actor, and Writer, but after last year’s The Midnight Sky, and now this, it feels like his career is going in the wrong direction. Here, Clooney manages to highlight some of the more uninteresting parts of the story, and leaves everything tangible out. The sudden shift towards the middle of the film taking JR from childhood to his College years was abrupt, and when we finally get to college – a moment that JR and his mom had been talking about for a majority of the first half of the movie – all we ever find out is that he has an “on again/off again” girlfriend who isn’t the best to JR, but JR keeps going back.
The later half of this film starts to fixate on this broken relationship, and, again, never uses this relationship to help justify him having the “it” factor when it comes to writing. He manages to still get everything he has on his own, and is never explicitly driven by these moments. That is what ultimately bothered me more than anything, is that there’s no driving factor for JR over the course of the movie. He just wants to write because he likes reading and his Uncle Charlie gave him some books. It is never known why he wants to be a writer, why he wants to use this medium to share his thoughts with the world. Maybe the memoir goes more in depth on this, but when it comes to the film, it feels like they barely scratched the surface with what could have been done.
What little The Tender Bar has going for it is an outstanding, and possibly a career defining, performance from Ben Affleck playing the role of JR’s Uncle Charlie. Uncle Charlie is your prototypical “cool” Uncle; he owns a bar, drives a mustang, and always is the smartest man in the room. Affleck’s work in this film is strong because he doesn’t try to do too much with this character. He lets his natural charisma take over, and even if the performance might not be moving or in your face, it’s effective. Uncle Charlie guides JR through life, and Affleck gives every scene enough swagger to have you fall in love with not only the character, but the person as well. You might know an “Uncle Charlie,” someone with the least amount of judgement towards you ultimately only wanting what is best for you, or you might want to know this person. Either way, Affleck creates one of the most real, likable, and cool characters of the entire year.
In the end, The Tender Bar manages to just be a shallow attempt at conveying the journey of what it is to be a writer. There are no real struggles that have to be overcome and there is really no tangible journey to follow. This film really only works whenever Ben Affleck is present, and even then, the moments are so few and far in between that you wind up longing for the movie to shift its point of view from JR to Uncle Charlie. However, not even Affleck’s performance can save this film from being a dull story with nothing to stay.
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.