A boy growing up on Long Island seeks out father figures among the patrons at his uncle’s bar.

Watch our latest YouTube review of “The Tender Bar” here! https://youtu.be/umG71g3mQAs

Chuck says:

There are some films where you can pinpoint exactly when they jump the rails and George Clooney’s “The Tender Bar,” an adaptation of the memoir by Pulitzer Prize winner J. R. Moehrigner, is one of them. Though the movie gets off to a promising start, an awkward transition undercuts the momentum of the story which it never regains. To be sure, the movie has its heart in the right place, but its sentiment hits the audience in fits and starts, ultimately failing to achieve the poignancy Clooney and company are striving for.

Having been abandoned by his father at the age of eight, young J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (Lily Rabe) are forced to move in with her parents. Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) is an eccentric curmudgeon while Grandma (Sondra James) has her good days and bad. Needless to say, there’s not a father figure in J.R.’s life, that is until his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) takes him under his wing, imparting a series of important life lessons that stretch over the years. While tidbits such as, “Take care of your mother” and “Don’t carry your money like a drunk,” might be simplistic, that doesn’t negate their validity. Yet, the most important things J.R. learns from his uncle are picked up by observing his behavior and adhering to his crude brand of honesty whether it apply to himself or others he meets.

This is all great stuff, the humor not forced, the characters realistically rendered and Clooney applying a deft hand where emotion is concerned.  Unfortunately, this only lasts during the film’s first act, the story suddenly jumping forward in time as we see J.R. (Tye Sheridan) set off for Harvard and then try to establish himself as a writer with the New York Times.  Any sense of vitality and vibrancy that was present in the early sections of the movie inexplicably falls away during these sequences.  Yes, there are some callbacks to the past and the film is suddenly engaging once more, but once the older J.R. is the focus, well, the magic just isn’t there. It would be unfair to place the blame on Sheridan as he does a fine job as the fish-out-of-water J.R.

The screenplay by William Monahan proves to be too fractured to keep us engaged and I couldn’t shake the feeling the writer and Clooney were far more interested in J.R.’s early years as well. Those scenes are more nuanced and fully realized than the latter parts of the film, while the cast creates characters we sympathize with.  Rabe is wonderful as J.R.’s damaged mother who wants her son to have a better life than see, while Lloyd captivates as always, lighting up every scene he’s in.  I was left wanting to spend more time with them and the film suffers when they’re not on screen.

The same can be said of Affleck who doesn’t overplay the emotional aspect of his character, holding back until his scenes need a subtle boost.  The actor is so good here, he’s able to overcome the fact that Monahan has him spouting so many pieces of sage advice or obscure factoids that he at times seems like a flesh-and-blood almanac. You can tell from the actor’s last few films that he’s learned the power of stillness.

Perhaps an edgier approach from Clooney would have benefitted the material as he has a tendency to play things safe. Affleck and the veteran cast know how to play this material but in the end, “Bar” winds up being half a movie, one that leaves us wanting more.

2 1/2 Stars


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