The Tender Bar might have a few standout performances, but director George Clooney makes a series of baffling decisions that causes this film to feel incredibly generic and mediocre by the time the credits roll.
Director: George Clooney
Summary: A boy growing up on Long Island seeks out father figures among the patrons at his uncle's bar.
As previously mentioned in our glowing review of C'Mon C'Mon, there are two movies that are primarily about the relationship of a boy and his uncle, and this one, The Tender Bar, is not the stronger of the two despite some good intentions and some good performances thrown in the mix. We're in an era of biopics today, and, unfortunately, this is a biopic that you've probably seen before. While the actual story behind the life of J.R. Moehringer is probably much more unique and interesting, in the process of adaptation, the story now seems like something we've seen before. When you're telling a somewhat generic story [absentee father, working through issues with family, an uncle who steps in to mentor you, finding closure], that means you need to step it up everywhere else.
The cast very much tries to step up. Ben Affleck is bringing his A-game, and this might be the best and warmest performance that he's given in years. While his turn in The Last Duel is the one people will be talking about when it comes to 2021 movies, this performance is the better of the two. He plays Uncle Charlie with such warmth and sincerity that you can really tell that he cares so much about his nephew. It's a really sweet dynamic, and both versions of J.R., played by Daniel Ranieri as a kid and Tye Sheridan as an adult, have terrific chemistry with him. Lily Rabe is also excellent as J.R.'s Mom, who pretty much has to sacrifice her own happiness for the possibility of giving J.R. a better life down the road. Usually, a role like that is tinged with low-key resentment, but there isn't an ounce of that in Rabe's performance. It's nice to see a movie not demonize or look down on a single mother that has to do what she can to take care of her family. Christoper Lloyd is surprisingly funny as J.R.'s grandpa, and he has a really sweet scene about halfway through the movie.
However, those performances are lost in a movie that makes every wrong decision behind the camera. The Tender Bar is not poorly made; director George Clooney is someone you can count on to make a competent film at the very least, but it is a rather boring one. If you watched this movie and didn't know that it had an established director behind the camera, you would think it was a director's first movie. Every choice that Clooney makes is so by the books and uninteresting to watch. As previously stated, the story of J.R.'s life, unfortunately, comes across as somewhat generic in translation; we have seen biopics like this every fall for the awards season, so if Clooney wanted to make this stand out from the pack, he needed to make some really weird or insanely creative decisions, but he didn't.
It's a movie flashing back to someone's life; would you be surprised to know that it has a voiceover? That doesn't really add much to the entire production but instead just explains things and misses the point of "show don't tell." It's a biopic, so we're going to jump around in the timeline a little instead of just telling a story, and sometimes those transitions between the past and the more present are very jarring [it is not helped by how little Ranieri and Sheridan look alike, you might think Sheridan is playing a different character until the movie tells you this is still J.R.]. There isn't an interesting shot or moment or anything in The Tender Bar that doesn't come from the performances of its cast. And it is on a director to pull good performances from their cast, Clooney should be commended for that, but the rest of the movie feels so phoned in. Clooney has seven feature film directing credits under his belt. This is what you would expect from him in 2002, the first time he decided to move behind the camera, not nearly a two decades later.
The Tender Bar feels like Amazon Studios is fishing for some awards nominations, and they might get one for supporting actor for Affleck. He might be worth the price of admission on his own, and even more so if you're not someone who watches a lot of biopics. However, if biopics are your genre, then this one isn't going to bring anything new to the table. It's got a few standout moments and performances, but aside from that, it's utterly forgettable, and no one is going to remember this one by the time spring rolls around.