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Review: The Tender Bar is a Ben Affleck film

George Clooney’s list of directed projects makes for fascinating reading. He’s made high drama, surreal comedy and everything in between, with more flops than hits. His last film, 2020’s The Midnight Sky ventured into sci-fi territory, a detached, poetic examination of climate change and the isolation of space travel; another project not exactly raved over by critics, when Clooney was once used to being in awards contention. His latest work smacks of Clooney doubting his touch, moving back to less shaky subject matter. The Tender Bar tells a story striking all the feel-good notes, a coming of age tale set in the 1980s, based on a successful memoir by a Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer (J R Moehringer). It stars an unknown (Daniel Ranieri) as the lead, JR, but all everyone wants to talk about is Ben Affleck‘s involvement, and so they should.

Before we get to the Affleck of it all, here’s the plot summary: young JR and mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe) move back in with her Long Island working-class parents (wonderfully played by Sondra James and Christopher Lloyd) meaning JR learns the facts of life from his close, messy family, particularly bar-owner Uncle Charlie (Affleck), while also navigating a complicated relationship with his estranged father, a famous radio star, and the pressures of trying to get into a good college.

And there it is. The Tender Bar is well-made, amusing and sweet. Clooney hits all the beats like a pro. It’s just…not offering anything innovative, except Affleck’s performance. Affleck, an actor whose talent has been overshadowed by his private life and personal struggles, is here to work, and he truly delights. Styled perfectly as book-obsessed bar owner Charlie, dripping in cool, he doles out words of wisdom, drives a fast car and rocks a battered leather jacket like nobody else can. Affleck is right at home in the period setting, effortlessly playing this tender (ahem) male figure who is central to JR’s personal development. And herein lies the rub, Charlie overshadows the remainder of the story. A film about his character would have been far more fun to watch, which highlights that JR’s journey feels merely pedestrian, even when Tye Sheridan takes over the character as he ages. JR is just a boy, standing in front of some books, asking us to care whether he reads them. Spoiler: he reads them ALL.

Of course, as this is an autobiography of a young man, the story fails to spend nearly enough time exploring Dorothy’s life. Rabe is a compelling actress repeatedly hired and then under-used (see HBO’s The Undoing) and here she’s defined by her wardrobe, looking great in flared jeans until it becomes a plot point for her to wear a suit. She deserves better, because she’s great in the role, Dorothy has to make tough personal sacrifices to ensure her son’s good fortune. Clooney really excels at character work, like many actors turned directors, it’s a shame that in 8 films he rarely deviates from centering a story around a certain kind of noble, white man.

With Moehringer’s autobiography being a former best-seller, there should be a ready-made audience for The Tender Bar, and Clooney has made a wholesome, decent movie. Will this be the win he needs to get back into the Academy’s graces? It’s doubtful. But for Affleck, this could be just the beginning of a bountiful second act.

Amazon Studios will release The Tender Bar in select locations on December 17, 2021 and it will be shared globally on Amazon Prime Video on January 7, 2022

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