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George Clooney’s The Tender Bar is an ordinary story about an ordinary person. JR (Daniel Ranieri) wants to be a writer – but only in the vague, mindless way that every smart and sensitive child wants to be. Genius isn’t pumping through his blood. Or if it’s there, it’s biding its time. His mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe), would rather he go to college, preferably Harvard or Yale, and become a lawyer.
JR, a Long Island native, spends his childhood moored in loving chaos, living alongside his grandmother (Sondra James, in her final role), his grandfather (Christopher Lloyd), who communicates largely through farting, and his uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck). Charlie owns a bar where the shelves are bursting with dusty, ragged books – he’s a near-mythical figure in JR’s life, a wizened captain gently steering the way.
We only know that JR is destined to become an extraordinary person because this story is, in fact, a memoir belonging to Pulitzer Prize-winning author JR Moehringer. But that rather seems to be the point of The Tender Bar. So many of Clooney’s past films have come across as concerted efforts to claw through the movie star sheen – whether in the political acuity of The Ides of March or the grizzled existentialism of last year’s The Midnight Sky.
But Tender Bar has taken a different tack – there’s a simple, undemanding honesty to it all. The emotions are small, the spaces are intimate. It feels minor, but not insignificant. I imagine Clooney sees some part of himself in Moehringer’s story – many others will, too, even if it’s only the soft pang of nostalgia. What Clooney, and screenwriter William Monahan, conjure so magnificently is the look, sound, and feel of a household that can only survive by sweeping trauma under the rug, busying itself with small trivialities. The Tender Bar is uneventful. But its performances have such an easy, lived-in quality that it wouldn’t be fair to call it inauthentic – just a little rosy in its outlook, perhaps.
Affleck, if anything, is the film’s great revelation, not because he has anything to prove as an actor, but because it’s been such a long time since he’s been handed a role not defined by sullen misery (DC’s Batman included, of course). Here, that brow finally unfurrows. The shoulders relax. He wears the part like an old, beaten-up jacket, utterly believable as a man who’s accepted his destiny with noble resignation. Rabe infuses Dorothy’s maternal concerns with a taut singlemindedness; Ranieri, who went viral last year for an F-bomb littered rant about the pandemic, brings pint-sized charm; while Sheridan plays JR as a piece of human putty that’s been impressed upon time and time again.
Dressed in costume designer Jenny Eagan’s Seventies and early Eighties threads, these actors all have the look of someone who’s just sauntered out of the pages of an old family photo album. What The Tender Bar may lack in narrative, or even emotional urgency, it at least makes up for in the warm and uncompromised feeling of coming home.