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The Tender Bar
Directed by George Clooney
Written by William Monahan, based on the book by J.R. Moehringer
Starring Tye Sheridan, Ben Affleck and Lily Rabe
Classification R; 106 minutes
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video starting Jan. 7
One of the greatest shared millennial memories is that feeling you’d get in class as a child upon seeing your teacher rolling a television into the classroom. If you were lucky, it meant you’d get to watch a good movie, and if you were unlucky it meant a boring movie with a lesson. The Tender Bar, directed by George Clooney and based on the memoir of journalist J.R. Moehringer, is the latter, only the “lesson” is unclear.
Starring Tye Sheridan as a young J.R., Ben Affleck as his underachieving but caring Uncle Charlie, and Lily Rabe as his single mother, Dorothy, The Tender Bar is full of high-calibre performances. Moehringer is a prolific bestselling author who bootstrapped his way into achieving his dreams of becoming a writer – yet his real-life story can’t make this film compelling.
The film focuses on Moehringer’s life from childhood to his early twenties. When he’s a child, J.R. and Dorothy move back into her family home with her parents and brother. J.R.’s absent father is an alcoholic radio DJ who pops in and mostly out of J.R.’s life, leaving Uncle Charlie, the owner of a bar called the Dickinson, to teach him all the lessons about what it means to be a man. Uncle Charlie also encourages J.R. to read as many books as possible, leading to J.R. dreaming of going to Yale and becoming a writer.
J.R.’s life is full of obstacles, but none that are dramatic enough to warrant a feature-length film. Ultimately, this is a story about a guy who simply beat a few odds to become a journalist. It’s not that every coming-of-age story needs extreme trauma, but watching someone become a pretty good writer is not an act of cinematic triumph. The film tries to make up for this by fitting in moments that explore themes of masculinity, but it’s all surface-level.
At this point in his career, Clooney is more than a seasoned director, yet The Tender Bar lacks any artistic vision. We’re left with the type of movie that you snooze through on a Sunday afternoon – or in a high-school English class.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.