As a director, George Clooney’s filmography has veered through different genres (most recently from the frigid edges of earth into outer space in the big-scale epic The Midnight Sky). But I don’t think he has ever hit us directly in the heart quite the way his latest, The Tender Bar, does.
The only special effect used in this exceptional and universally recognizable story is simply family. It is what they call in the trade a “feel good” movie, and boy, do we need it now. It should be no surprise that it all comes from real life, specifically a coming-of-age 2005 memoir written by, and about, Pulitizer Prize-winning author J.R. Moehringer and his life shaped by his time growing up in Manhasset, Long Island, specifically the local bar, Dickens, run by his Uncle Charlie. It is really where his education and life lessons from boy to young man were shaped, and it was in this hometown that he finds his answer to true happiness was all along.
Clooney whimsically describes it all as a bit of The Wizard of Oz, the comparison being the realization that the mythical key to life that we search for is right there at home the whole time. With a literate and loving screenplay adaptation from William Monahan (Oscar winner for The Departed), this could also be called a true father(s) and son tale: the story of J.R., a young boy whose birth father abandoned his family early on, leaving him to find that much-needed relationship with his grandpa, the men who daily inhabited Dickens, and most notably, Uncle Charlie. The latter is portrayed beautifully and knowingly by Ben Affleck in his best screen performance, a part he was born to play of a self-educated man, lover of books, and possessor of innate knowledge and wisdom he is determined to pass on to his nephew.
The themes of class, family, and self-discovery permeate The Tender Bar, which, I think, represents Clooney’s most accomplished, if unassuming, work behind the camera since his multi-Oscar-nominated Good Night, And Good Luck.
Clearly, the center of the story is J.R., and the role is shared by irresistible newcomer Daniel Ranieri (discovered in pure Hollywood fashion from a viral rant about the pandemic that landed him a guest spot with Jimmy Kimmel) as the 9-year-old version, and later by a terrific Tye Sheridan as the older teen who, against all odds, gets accepted by Yale and experiences a whole new world on a path that will eventually turn him into the writer of his dreams.
With his father (Max Martini), a radio personality known as The Voice, basically someone never talked about by family, J.R. searches for the man he thought he might be but sadly finds a person with a dark side who was incapable of giving his son the love and guidance he needed. He only got that by spending afternoons at his Uncle’s bar, or the family home owned by Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd in a small but rich turn), where he also lives with his supportive mother Dorothy (a luminous Lily Rabe) whose only dream is a seemingly impossible one of seeing her son get into an Ivy League school. It is all simply the stuff of life as J.R. rolls around town with Charlie in his Uncle’s signature dream convertible, or soaks in knowledge from the unlikely customers of that tender bar.
The film’s second half focuses on J.R.’s emergence into a completely different class as a student at Yale, getting the 411 from his roommates Wisley (Rhenzy Feliz) and Jimmy (Ivan Leung), and pure frustration from a classmate Sidney (promising newcomer Briana Middleton) who comes from a wealthy Connecticut family but sends confusing signals about their on- and-off romantic relationship. His eventual internship at the New York Times is also nicely etched here, as we see the seeds of the writer J.R. is to become.
This is a pure story focused on human beings, and thus not one you see coming from the studios these days. But it is the kind of film Hollywood used to turn out regularly, when they believed audiences were interested in seeing the lives of actual people like them played out in movie theatres.
It is fortunate Amazon is giving it a theatrical run in December before its January streaming premiere, so the lucky ones among us might have the collective experience of sharing it together. This is the kind of movie I remember seeing as a kid, and, in fact, it reminded me of a film humanist director Frank Capra might have made, something like A Hole in the Head, centered on the relationship of a spirited boy and his down-on-his-luck father (Frank Sinatra) and extended family in a Miami hotel.
I am certain Capra would still gravitate to stories like The Tender Bar, and it is nice that Clooney has done that as well. It is a movie that draws laughs and tears, a heart-warmer with a simple premise: family is everything. The only drawback is, due to language and some tasteful sexual scenes no doubt (plus the MPA’s dumb guidelines) it is rated ‘R,’ but I urge families to see it together. Look, it isn’t Paw Patrol, but kids the age of both actors who play J.R. can handle it.
Affleck has lead billing, but it is really a strong supporting role to the combined turn of Ranieri and Sheridan as J.R. What Affleck does with it just reinforces, after last year’s alcoholic college basketball coach in The Way Back, that he is capable of so much more than many of his higher-profile film roles that didn’t show his range.
As a bar owner with keen intellect, Affleck traverses some choice dialogue and monologues to deliver an unforgettable portrait of the uncle you wish you had. Max Casella, Michael Braun and Matthew Delamater are wonderful as the bar regulars who dispense life advice to J.R. Martini is imposing as the unlikeable father, and a special shout-out to the inimitable Sondra James, who died last month. She manages to steal her all-too-few moments as grandma with the skill she always showed in a long and fruitful acting career. Clooney’s choice of songs on the soundtrack also deserves star billing.
It is heartening to see a growing number of films this season that put the focus squarely on family in ways designed to give us real live breathing people in which to relate on screen, fine movies like CODA, Ken Branagh’s Belfast, and now The Tender Bar.
It may be the effect of being so disconnected to our own shared humanity by the pandemic, but it is a welcome trend and one I hope that results in more movies like them.
Clooney produced The Tender Bar with Grant Heslov and Ted Hope. Amazon will release it n theaters in New York and Los Angeles on December 17, nationwide December 22. then globally on Amazon Prime Video on January 7. It followed a special tastemaker screening in Los Angeles last Sunday with its official world premiere tonight at the London Film Festival.