The Tender Bar
(SPOILERS) George continues to flog his dead horse of a directorial career. It has to be admitted, however, that he goes less astray here than with anything he’s called the shots on in a decade (Suburbicon may be a better movie overall, but the parts that grind metal are all ones Clooney grafted onto the Coen Brothers’ screenplay). For starters, he gives Batffleck a role where he can shine, and I’d given up on that being possible. Some of the other casting stretches credulity, but by setting his sights modestly, he makes The Tender Bar passably slight for the most part.
The picture’s based on a memoir by JR Moehringer – “Publishing is heading towards memoirs”, we are told as a cute joke on several occasions – and being a memoir, of the type memoirs are, where it scores is in character rather than incident. Of which, its slice-of-life nature is either warmly familiar or unremarkably so, depending on one’s mileage. We learn how, aged nine, JR Maguire was taken by mum Dorothy (Lily Rabe) to live with her parents (Christopher Lloyd and Sondra James), and of the influence Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) had on his formative years; “Every family needs an Uncle Charlie” his reflective older self, in the narrator form of Ron Livingston, informs us.
The Tender Bar, the title deriving from Charlie’s business premises, spans the 1970s to late 1980s and anecdotally takes on the foibles of JR’s grandpa (“an old turd” who nevertheless takes the youngster to a parent-son day, Lloyd showing his most endearing side), his absent radio host dad (Max Martini), and mom’s hopes for him (she wants him to go to Yale or Harvard, become a lawyer). The movie is at its most engaging whenever Charlie is holding court; Affleck in somewhat atrophied form, as if he’s been on the McConaughey diet – or the O’Toole one – reveals a charming worldly wisdom and wit (it’s not often – never? – that you can claim Affleck as the best part of a picture).
Despite his chops, the movie’s less engaging when the older Tye Sheridan replaces Daniel Ranieri as JR, quickly getting itself bogged down in rather slim rites-of-passage beats as he falls for the girl (Brianna Middleton) who serially refuses to get serious with him. The memoir really needs to take us somewhere significant – be it tragic or triumphant – if it’s to etch itself on the mind, and however well it may have worked in print, and The Tender Bar fails to sustain itself is as a movie. Perhaps screenwriter William Monahan, who hasn’t delivered much of merit in more than a decade, and is now more associated with failed attempts at a writer-director career, ought to have departed more substantially from the text.
It doesn’t help that, while Clooney’s choices of Affleck, Lloyd, Sheridan and Livingston show an actor’s eye for extracting a good performance, his pick of Ranieri is baffling. Not that the pint-sized player can’t act, but the idea that this kid could be part of this family is a distracting non sequitur, and it’s less believable still that he’d grow up to be Sheridan. One can only assume Clooney’s smirking away, seeing who will pass his woke test and refuse to mention the obvious.
Or perhaps the choice is incredibly clever – yeah right, from the guy who brought us The Monuments Men – and JR’s mooted lack of personality is reflected by switches in ethnicity; perhaps George should have taken it further, and rather than Livingston narrating, it could have been his Office Space co-star Jennifer Aniston. Or perhaps JR’s supposed to be Doctor Who?
Jeff Wells, going where woke-for-broke critics fear to tread, addressed this back in October: "I’m speaking of the casting of young Daniel Ranieri, a kid from an apparently Middle Eastern family (the last name is Italian but the lineage appears to be Lebanese, Iranian, Jordanian…somewhere in that realm), as the 10 year-old version of Sheridan, who, like Moehringer in actuality, is the biological son of a German paleface couple (Rabe and Martini). It would be one thing if Ranieri was adopted, but there’s NO WAY IN HELL this kid grows up to be Tye Sheridan". Ranieri’s parents have apparently Italian and Sicilian surnames, although he struck me as bearing a passing resemblance to Deep Roy (1970s, rather than today).
Wells makes a further point about Clooney being in thrall to presentism by changing the novel’s white girlfriend to a person of colour with interracial parentage, rather anomalous, given the period and place. A follow-up piece quotes Brooke Warner and his observation “it cannot be lost on any viewer that Sydney and Wesley, J.R.’s love interest and best friend, respectively, are Black. Yale’s current student body, in 2022, is 5% Black. It’s important (critical even) that Hollywood be paying attention to the dearth of Black roles in Hollywood, but am I the only one who was bothered by the fact that this is not addressed in the script?” Reasonable points, and hardly surprising, coming from George (nevertheless, one of the few scenes giving Sheridan a chance to shine comes when he decides to treat his breakfast table interrogation by Sidney’s parents with the disrespect it deserves).
Dotted along the way are occasionally interesting nuggets. Grandpa’s criticism of education, whereby ability as a concept has been “turned into a mechanical empirical construct”, pointing the finger at the German influence on the education system in nineteenth century, seems to be a swipe at Hegel. Charlie’s advice to study philosophy, because you can “always do well in that class, as there’s no right answer” is sound enough. And then there’s the train frequenting clergyman, commenting of JR’s girlfriend being only upper lower middle class, “Well, you never see the really rich. They’re invisible”.
Clooney, of course, has recently ripped off his good liberal fright mask and revealed the NWO totalitarian beneath (not that there could be any doubt, yachting with Obama to popular acclaim). You can always rely on an empty-eyed celeb to act the Elite-appointed spokesperson, attempting to reach the parts politicos can’t. So George has been foisting vacuous soundbites and allusions upon us in his jab movie promotional tour, such that “It’s stupid because every generation in our country for more than a lifetime has been asked to sacrifice something for the safety of their fellow man—get shot, fight Nazis”, and “All that anyone’s being asked here is to get a shot in the arm and put on a mask. Grow up. Get something done”. Words fail one.
But they don’t fail George. There’s more: “I support mandatory vaccines. Period”. He can justify himself too, couched in false equivalence and appeals to the brotherhood of man, or persons: “All the people who want to talk about their independence or their freedom, the minute your freedom infringes on everyone else's can put a stop to it; To me, it's really simple. We can look out for one another, we can take care of one or we cannot. It's that simple”. Spoken like a celeb who’s been promised their placebo shot(s). He even wades into the history of vaccines, doubtless assuming, with his rarefied insight, he can cover all bases on the road to spouting bare-faced falsehoods: “We haven't had any of those problems with the vaccine. It's been a pretty successful rollout”. Unless he’s referring to the underlying agenda, whereby the problems are intentional. In which case, yeah, it’s been pretty successful.
So was George selling The Tender Bar or selling the jab? Since it went to streaming pretty quickly – so engaging a captive audience, just like his last one – I’d suggest the two stars aligned “fortuitously” at very least. Attaboy, George. You’re a dutiful little performing monkey. All that aside, should Affleck get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for The Tender Bar (he was nominated for the Globes), it would be surprisingly warranted: a strong performance in a mediocre movie.