George Clooney, tv dreamboat turned elder statesman of cinema is back in the director’s chair for The Tender Bar, a sensitive tale of surviving childhood. This is Clooney’s first directing effort since 2020’s The Midnight Sky, the science fiction fable in which he also played the lead, an aging scientist as lonely hero. Clooney forgoes an acting role in The Tender Bar, yet every scene delivered by his excellent cast wears his well-aged, romantic heart on its era-costumed sleeve. It is avuncular in more than mere storyline. This unpretentious and inarguably sentimental drama may be the one hour and forty-six minutes of gentle escape desired during COVID times. While nothing is simple here, it is sweet!
Clooney, working from William Monahan’s screenplay based on a well-received 2005 memoir of the same title by J.R. Moehringer, has lovingly crafted an homage to lonely fatherless boyhood, coming-of-age, and the potent value of male role models. Imperfect men, hard-drinking barflies all, who young JR Maguire (a proxy for the author) meets at the local watering hole where his erudite uncle Charlie tends bar and expounds upon life’s meaning. It is 1972, and JR is an anxious 9-year-old living with his single mom (stage actor Lily Rabe) and assorted relatives in his crusty grandfather’s crowded, last-resort home on Long Island. Christopher Lloyd is great as a testy grouch of a patriarch. Also in residence is JRs uncle, Charlie, played with panache and feeling and much humor by a finally maturing Ben Affleck, a surrogate father to JR, whose real father is a peripatetic disc jockey; just a seductive but unavailable Voice on the radio dial.
Daniel Ranieri, in his first film role, plays the young JR, with just the right note of innocent precociousness. Tye Sheridan, the cusp-of-adulthood JR, retains the bewildered boy Ranieri delivered but credibly deepens his engagement with his ever-more-complicated life.
The denizens of the bar cannot resist trying to mold the kid into what they consider a real man should be. These are guys with an old-fashioned code, who believe in gentlemanly conduct, honoring women, street education, and they worship Charlie, the best of them. But remember: they drink. A lot. What could go wrong?!!
We are treated to a mellow, golden-hued world, as though shot through a glass of single malt with Sinatra playing in the background. Literature is quoted, lofty ideas take wing, wrongs are righted, but shenanigans rule. An idiosyncratic 1970s and 80s, but that is intentional. One may quibble with the vignette style of filmmaking here, yet there is an arc to this memory piece.
The Tender Bar is a selective reading of a more nuanced memoir, but it has its charms, and they are many. Allow it to wrap you warmly in its boozy nostalgia, and you’ll meet some lovely characters on the premises, where human tenderness is always on tap.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Maureen O’Connell