George Clooney should’ve adapted J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir The Tender Bar as a one-man show instead of a feature film: The ensemble cast playing the important figures in Moehringer’s life don’t read as standalone characters as much as hagiographical mouthpieces. Fair enough—it’s his story. But Moehringer didn’t write The Tender Bar’s script; William Monahan did. Moehringer didn’t direct the film, either; Clooney did, and his considerable star power continues to translate into amateurish screen energy. His filmmaking is earnest, but so coltish that the effort is embarrassing. This doesn’t feel like the product of a Hollywood icon. It feels like a piece of community theater with a prestige bait budget.
The Tender Bar is told over the decades spanning Moehringer’s upbringing on Long Island, where he’s played by Daniel Ranieri, to his eventual graduation from Yale, where he’s played by Tye Sheridan. A merry, colorful cast rounds out the backdrop of his life, including Lily Rabe as his mother Dorothy; Christopher Lloyd as his grandpa; scads of barflies played by Michael Braun, Max Casella and Matthew Delamater; and, most of all, Ben Affleck as Uncle Charlie. Charlie is described in voiceover (provided by Ron Livingston) as the sort of uncle everyone wants. As he’s portrayed in The Tender Bar, this is unimpeachably true. He owns and operates a pub, Dickens, stacked with books. His “man science” (male guidelines for living) includes everything from the macho art of changing a tire to chivalry. He’s smart, he’s athletic, he’s no-nonsense and he’d go through a wall for people he loves.
Charlie’s character breakdown on Clooney’s casting call likely read as follows: “A dude who’s just rad as hell.” Affleck leans into Charlie’s unflagging awesomeness with gusto, shaping him as unvarnished and polished at the same time. He’s having fun, so we have fun watching him. But “fun” doesn’t equal substantive, which frankly isn’t Affleck’s role in the first place. He’s there to help hold up Clooney’s interpretation of Moehringer’s text. Some people view the past through rose-tinted glasses. Clooney’s glasses are glazed with corn, a hideous creative choice meant to signal “period” for audiences, as if he can’t trust them to make the leap from now to the 1970s. It’s the first sign of his laziness as a storyteller.
Of course there are others. Moehringer was born in New York City and Dorothy raised him in Manhasset, but nobody bothered to hide the shooting locations, scattered all over Massachusetts’ North Shore region: Beverly, Watertown and Wakefield, where Clooney films a scene at the local candlepin bowling spot without changing a thing about it. Who goes candlepin bowling outside of Massachusetts? Clooney either didn’t ask the question or didn’t care. Viewers unaware of Moehringer’s Long Island roots might just assume he grew up north of Boston because The Tender Bar assumes that Boston and Long Island are interchangeable communities. The nonexistent set decoration is one piece of evidence. Affleck’s presence is another. He’s Mr. Boston. Putting him in a movie about a working class kid fostered by working class folks with working class accents that belie an academic intellect is, perhaps, a mistake.
As mired as it is in identity confusion, cheeseball sentimentality and jaundiced camera filters, The Tender Bar could’ve been something if it had a purpose. Clooney burdens The Tender Bar with a wealth of potential narratives but doesn’t settle on one, be it Moehringer’s relationship with Charlie, his relationship with his abusive absentee asshole father (Max Martini), his responsibility to his family as the only one capable of escaping their economic status, his culture clash with well-heeled Yale classmates as a man not of means. Each one of these arcs is a rich vein of material and Clooney greedily tries to tap them all, but he’s so focused on the macro that he ignores the micro and misses countless opportunities to make a point—any point—about what Moehringer’s story has to tell us.
Worse movies than The Tender Bar came out in 2021. Worse movies will come out in 2022. There’s meager pleasure to be had in watching loveable actors ham it up for an hour and a half, even when those actors have to stride on through cringeworthy beats and the picture looks as ugly as the one Clooney had cinematographer Martin Ruhe shoot on his behalf. But that pleasure is easily forgotten because there’s little reason for us to care about anything Clooney shows.
Director: George Clooney
Writer: William Monahan
Starring: Daniel Ranieri, Tye Sheridan, Ron Livingston, Ben Affleck, Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, Sondra James, Max Martini
Release Date: January 5, 2022 (Amazon Prime)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.