Actor turned mostly director George Clooney helms “The Tender Bar”, an upcoming adaptation of J. R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir which recounted his life growing up in a complicated Long Island family. Set mostly in the 1970s and 80s, the story (written by William Monahan) bounces back-and-forth between J.R.’s early childhood years and his time at Yale University in New Haven.
The film opens in 1973 with a dirty beat-up Ford Fairlane chugging down the highway. A mattress is strapped to the top of the car, the trunk lid tied down, and “Radar Love” by Golden Earring plays on the radio. Inside is young J.R. (portrayed by expressive newcomer Daniel Ranieri) and his mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe). Unable to pay their rent, the two are moving back to Long Island to stay with her disapproving father (Christopher Lloyd) until she can get back on her feet.
Through the solemnly observant eyes of young J.R. we learn a lot about his ‘complicated’ family situation. It turns out his deadbeat father (Max Martini) is a popular New York City radio DJ known as “The Voice” who left his family shortly after J.R. was born. He makes the occasional guilt-ridden phone call to his son, but J.R. is mostly left listening to the radio if he wants to hear his father’s voice.
In Long Island, J.R.’s family is a colorful lot. His grandpa’s house is a circus full of aunts, uncles, and cousins. At the top of the list is Uncle Charlie (a terrific Ben Affleck), a much needed father figure who takes J.R. under his wing. Charlie is a brutally honest yet warm-hearted straight-shooter who runs a bar called The Dickens (named after Charles Dickens). There he gives his nephew lessons on “male science” while pushing him to read and write (and discouraging him from playing sports. “You’re not that good.”)
The 1980s scenes sees Tye Sheridan in the role of an older J.R. They follow his time at Yale where he first meets an enchanting yet fickle young woman named Sydney (Briana Middleton). Later we see him finally stepping out to pursue his dream of being a writer. But looming throughout the entire film is his father. Deep down J.R. still holds out hope for his dad and he finally reaches a point where he needs to know where they stand.
The early scenes with young Ranieri are the film’s best (with the exception of a needless gassy grandpa gag) and they do a good job of setting up J.R.’s childhood in a way that helps us to understand the character well. There are some especially good scenes between Ranieri and Affleck, and Rabe gets several strong moments that add important layers to Dorothy.
The later scenes with Sheridan are a mixed bag. This chapter of J.R.’s life at times feels rushed and there were gaps in his story that I would have loved to see filled. I also grew annoyed at his on-again-off-again “relationship” with Sidney. While Middleton is undeniable charming, her character is frustratingly underwritten and ultimately adds nothing to the movie. It’s also a bummer that Rabe more or less vanishes in the second half. But Sheridan is good and he too gets some really strong scenes with Affleck who ends up stealing the show.
With “The Tender Bar” Amazon Studios gives us a thoughtful coming-of-age drama that has the personality and heart you look for in movies like this. Clooney’s direction, though a little scattershot at times, keeps the story together and moving forward. He also knows what he has in the sincere and grounded Affleck who ultimately steals the show. It’s the script the holds things back. There a few too many holes in J.R.’s timeline. And while Clooney tries to plug them the best he can, the story ends up needing more to make it stand out as something special.
“The Tender Bar” is set for a limited theatrical release starting December 17th before releasing on Amazon Prime January 7th.