The Tender Bar, review: it's hard to get the point of George Clooney's latest film
(Cert tbc, 104 min)
Dir: George Clooney; Cast: Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Christopher Lloyd, Lily Rabe, Daniel Ranieri, Max Martini
It might come as a surprise that George Clooney has now directed eight features: name more than three and you’re doing quite well. The Tender Bar is one of his better ones lately – a warm-hearted if vaguely inconsequential comedy-drama based on a memoir by the American journalist JR Moehringer, who ghostwrote Andre Agassi’s autobiography and has just been hired to do Prince Harry’s.
A turbulent relationship with an estranged father? It’s not hard to guess what themes from this 2005 book brought Moehringer to the Duke’s attention. Moehringer was raised by a single mother, Dorothy, and spent long stretches of his youth in his grandpa’s ramshackle home with sundry other relatives, forming a particularly close bond with his maternal uncle, Charlie: a plum role for Ben Affleck as a sardonic bartender and fount of all male wisdom.
Icky though this material could have been, one Batman directs another with a sure hand, and Clooney also manages to elicit a touching Tye Sheridan’s best performance in years as the college-age JR. This stands for “junior”: he’s screwed up by being saddled with the same first name as the dad he never gets to see, but whose gravelly voice as a New York radio DJ plagues him continually on the airwaves.
A salty script by The Departed’s William Monahan is often Clooney’s salvation, and Affleck’s way in. His dispensing of hard-knock advice has a rueful assurance, even when the film’s man-to-man philosophising and literary quips raise serious concerns that someone’s going to start quoting Hemingway.
There’s an awful lot that shouldn’t work and plenty of things that don’t. Many of the needle-drops, from the likes of Steely Dan and Paul Simon, are an easy pleasure; when you get four of them in the space of ten minutes, you feel like Clooney’s just buttering you up. Visually, it’s a bit of a nothing. If the chronic establishing shots of Charlie’s Long Island bar (“The Dickens”) transport us anywhere, it’s right back to the comfort zone of Cheers.
Moehringer is played as a youngster by the promising Daniel Ranieri, a TikTok sensation Clooney picked out, but the voiceover we’re hearing comes from his middle-aged self. There’s nothing an unseen Ron Livingston can do to connect all three iterations of the character believably: the narration’s a feeble crutch which keeps trying to tell us what the film is for.
Clooney never quite has the answer to this. Moehringer got a full scholarship to Yale and made his mother (an emotional Lily Rabe) very proud, then struggled to get his journalistic career off the ground at the New York Times. He needed to write something intensely personal to get people to care, so – with this memoir expressly in mind – he hit the road to attempt a rapprochement with his father (Max Martini), a relapsed alcoholic in an abusive relationship with the rest of humanity.
“Man writes memoir” is the upshot: not enough. But the film is redemptively warm and watchable on a scene-to-scene basis. Christopher Lloyd’s first scene as gramps consists inauspiciously of a half-dozen farts, but he has a sweet bit where he accompanies JR to school for what’s meant to be father-son day. When Clooney gets this cast riffing off each other in boozy hangout mode, the movie skips along surprisingly well for all its so-what-ishness.
In cinemas from Dec 17 and Amazon Prime Video from Jan 7