Ben Affleck shines in George Clooney’s latest film The Tender Bar, a homegrown American memoir with a focus on sentimentality.
The fast-changing landscape of movie distribution is currently on the brink of a major upheaval, as more and more streaming services are born, and an increasing percentage of new releases are produced with the explicit intent of going directly to people’s living rooms. But the reality is that although streaming may be a shortcut for the consumer, if the production companies behind these user-friendly interfaces truly want to be included in the cinematic conversation, the quality of their output needs to match their lofty business projections. Blockbusters by nature lend themselves to the biggest screens possible, comedies are funnier with a crowd, and awards contenders ironically represent the very generations that shun streaming; what’s left is one demographic that seems tailor-made for the FireStick era: the inoffensive middle-of-the-road American memoir. Prime’s 2021 player in that field is The Tender Bar, a film so indebted to its title that one finds it hard to muster up the energy to be upset at its blatant triviality.
Following the early life of J.R. Moehringer, the film opens on the young J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) as he learns the dos and don’ts of the world through the caring but skewed eyes of his Uncle Charlie, played by Ben Affleck with admiral restraint and casual, lived-in ease. They comfortably — maybe too comfortably — reside in the house of his grandfather (Christopher Lloyd), along with his mom Dorothy (Lily Rabe). It’s not a tortured life, to be sure, being a screw-up and hanging out in bars, carrying out intellectual discussions with your buddies or just hanging around watching sports, but it is persistently permeated by an awareness of the insignificance of such an unmotivated existence. Dorothy wants more for her son and sets her sights no lower than Yale, her palpable desperation for him to “be better” and “do more” a constant pressure on the impressionable young J.R.
For a film so steeped in ideas of critical thought, nothing about The Tender Bar invites significant examination below the surface. If memoir adaptations about young upstart writers seem tailormade for streaming, the worry is in them becoming so commonplace that even their low-key, pleasant journeys become tiresome, as other recent entries in this fast-dying subgenre (Hillbilly Elegy, Uncle Frank) blend into each other and then with this new installment, a growing crowd of indistinguishable movies.
One could argue that some lives just aren’t terribly interesting and there doesn’t seem to be much reason they chose to make a movie about this person over anybody else, but to me that seems to miss the broader point; in telling a personal story, a filmmaker should make that story feel personal, yet The Tender Bar is functionally nondescript in virtually every way. George Clooney‘s latest effort continues to show that his initial fervor behind the camera (Good Night and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) has all but fizzled, making it only a matter of time before he’s announcing the Golden Globes nominees instead of being one of them.
There is a modicum of intrigue in the way The Tender Bar presents its streetwise barfly characters, showing the oft-drunk men to be intelligent without much formal education, and not in that lazy “street smarts” way that would only serve to exacerbate their street-rat personas. They exhibit some traditional scholarly wisdom learned not from an expensive ivy league education, but simply from reading books. School is exclusive, but knowledge and culture are a pursuit of happiness. It seems a small shame, then, that the film’s uninspired structure shoe-horns these bits of wisdom into the plot in the form of vague platitudes about life and women, but these guys would be the first to admit to how frivolously they’ve applied their wisdom. What’s important for J.R. is that they understand that, and their respect for intellect and literature guides the boy from the general pressure from his mom into a motivation that’s a little more specific, an actual goal rather than merely idealized stress: he would become a writer.
What The Tender Bar never escapes is a cage it doesn’t even seem to realize it is trapped within: those invisible parameters of unremarkability layering its tale. There are plenty of great films about mundanity, but the key there is that they’re *about* mundanity, whereas The Tender Bar seems unaware of its insignificance. The tagline on the poster signals it as “the feel-good movie we all need right now,” which is a difficult assertion to argue against. The Tender Bar is a wholly unremarkable but undeniably pleasant movie, clearly far more interested in making you feel all warm and sentimental than getting you to think. And there’s nothing wrong with a nice movie, even if it is more tame than it is tender. But it’s hard to ignore the irony of such an unmotivated goal in a film squarely about writing.
The Tender Bar will be released globally on Prime Video January 7th, 2022.