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Written by: William Monahan
Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: Ben Affleck; Tye Sheridan; Daniel Ranieri; Lily Rabe; Max Martini; Christopher Lloyd; Briana Middleton
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Movies about aspiring writers too often come across mawkish and cheesy. It’s almost a condition, something that just comes with the territory and which the likable but cliché The Tender Bar doesn’t do enough to defend against.
Orange County set on the East Coast, more specifically Long Island, The Tender Bar is a coming-of-age drama based on the memoir written by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and journalist J.R. Moehringer. Filtered through thick accents and an unabashedly sentimental lens, it charts his path from humble upbringings to Yale University and a bit beyond, exploring the influence that his family had on shaping his dream. Yet for all its good intentions and stretches of excellent acting, it’s a strange feeling to sit through something as banal as what we get here, considering the talent both in front of and behind the camera and the Oscar-winning pedigree of screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed).
While it’s certainly not the latter’s best effort — the dialogue is often corny, most of it unfortunately spouted by Ron Livingston in his Wonder Years-like voice-over — this is more about George Clooney phoning it in as director, failing to girder Moehringer’s memoir with a compelling cinematic treatment. If this were your introduction to the subject (as it was for me) you might come away shrugging the whole thing off as inconsequential. Moehringer is an accomplished writer but the hackneyed presentation doesn’t make him seem very interesting.
About the only distinction The Tender Bar has is a terrific performance from Ben Affleck, who becomes the role model J.R.’s biological father never was interested in playing, particularly in his childhood. He plays Uncle Charlie, a stabilizing force in the chaotic house into which young J.R. (introducing Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (Lily Rabe) are flung at the movie’s open. He’s also the bartender at The Dickens, a little hole-in-the-wall where dozens of books line the shelves alongside the booze. It’s here where J.R. spends much of his time, sipping Coca-Cola and inhaling life advice from his sleeper-genius uncle, whose own murky career goals belie the clarity of his wisdom.
The movie’s other asset is Max Martini who provides the antithesis to Affleck’s charm and warmth. As J.R.’s father, a radio deejay only referred to as “The Voice,” he doesn’t appear for long but enough to leave a bruise. The inevitable confrontation between him and his upward-trending son (now Tye Sheridan — amiable if unremarkable), although patently predictable given Clooney’s strict adherence to formula, lends tension to a story where most obstacles are cleared without effort. And if not effortlessly cleared, needlessly repeated — Briana Middleton’s appearance as a love interest does nothing to advance the story, only to remind of the elitism that swirls at the Ivy League level.
The condescension J.R. experiences here is what we feel throughout much of the story. The Tender Bar is pleasant enough but also basic. Like its subject and his needing to know what his initials stand for, it’s constantly searching for an identity of its own.
Moral of the Story: Though sometimes too schmaltzy, The Tender Bar has occasional moments of affecting character work, especially between Affleck and the young Ranieri. But he gets along famously with both actors, and it’s that dynamic I’d recommend more than anything else here. Without trying to sound snobby, it’s just not a particularly deep movie.
Running Time: 104 mins.
Quoted: “I want to be a writer, but I suck.”
“Well, when you suck at writing, that’s when you become a journalist.”
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