The Tender Bar Review: Cool Uncle Ben Affleck Shines In George Clooney's Lifeless Drama

I like George Clooney. He's a good-looking fellow, he's a dedicated philanthropist, and he's a damn fine actor. He seems like he has it all! But there's one area Clooney continues to fail in, no matter how hard he tries: filmmaking. Clooney has directed some solid flicks — his directorial debut "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is clever and features a killer Sam Rockwell performance, and his ode to journalism "Good Night And Good Luck" is fantastic. Beyond those two bright spots, though, Clooney has come up short in the filmmaking department. "The Ides of March" boasts an incredible cast but a weak story. And his features "Leatherheads," "The Monuments Men," "Suburbicon," and "The Midnight Sky" are either forgettable or, in the case of "Suburbicon," downright bad. And yet, Clooney keeps getting behind a camera. Probably because he's so handsome and charming that no one wants to tell him to stop. Well, allow me to take a chance here and say: George Clooney, please stop directing.

It's not so much that Clooney is bad at directing. It's more that he doesn't seem to have anything to say. That might be fine if Clooney were operating as a journeyman; a hired-gun brought in by studios to do a serviceable job. But it's clear Clooney feels like he's an artist, and good art needs to say something; anything, really. And Clooney doesn't seem to grasp that. The filmmaker's latest, "The Tender Bar," might be his most lifeless, pointless entry yet. Adapted from the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, "The Tender Bar" is a coming-of-age drama with nothing on its mind. Its main character, a rather boring college student played by Tye Sheridan, never once holds our interest. Multiple times throughout this film I kept wondering, "Why should I give a crap about this guy?" What is it, exactly, about young J.R. that warrants an entire movie? I genuinely don't know, and if you have the answer, please write it on a postcard and mail it directly to my brain.

And yet, there is a saving grace in "The Tender Bar," and that would be Ben Affleck, who is so effortlessly cool and likable here that it almost feels offensive that this performance is being wasted in such a dud of a movie. 

Why Should We Care About J.R.?

I'm not entirely sure when it happened, but at some point, Ben Affleck became a great actor. Affleck was never bad, of course. But for a while there, I'd say his work fit snugly into the "fine" category. As he's gotten older, though, Boston's favorite son has truly come into his own, especially when it comes to character actor roles. Last year he gave a dynamite performance in the underseen "The Way Back." This year, he had a scene-stealing turn in Ridley Scott's "The Last Duel." And any time he's on-screen in "The Tender Bar," the flaccid movie comes to life. Affleck is playing J.R.'s Uncle Charlie here, and he exudes Cool Uncle Energy. With his rough-around-the-edges manner, his chain-smoking, and his occasional hangovers, Affleck turns Charlie into the film's sole attraction. I found myself wishing the movie would completely nix J.R. and focus solely on Affleck's character, a well-read bartender who doles out life lessons in between pouring drinks. 

As the film starts, young J.R. (played as a child by Daniel Ranieri, as a college kid by Tye Sheridan, and as a full-grown adult, in narration form, by Ron Livingston) moves back to his family home with his mother, Dorothy (Lily Rabe). They take up residence in the home of Dorothy's father (Christopher Lloyd), an old grouch who nonetheless allows multiple members of his extended family to crash at his place until they can get back on their feet. J.R. is rudderless, and he lacks a father figure because his father, a drunken, abusive radio D.J. (Max Martini), is never around. Who shall guide this young man? His mother, perhaps?

No, of course not, don't be silly. J.R.'s mom barely figures into the story, despite Rabe's best efforts. Instead, the person J.R. takes to is his Uncle Charlie, played by Affleck. Charlie has a closet overflowing with books, and when he's not tending bar he's usually reading. He encourages J.R. to read, too, and the kid takes a liking to the written word. All this reading makes J.R. want to grow up and be a writer, and he chases after those dreams, working hard to get himself a scholarship to Yale. 

Affleck Is The Only Real Draw Here

Now, if you think "The Tender Bar" is going to be about more than some kid going to Yale, I have some bad news for you. Sure, there are snippets here and there of other things — like an on-again/off-again relationship J.R. has with another student (Briana Middleton). But none of it adds up to much. Worse, there's a mercenary nature to what's going on here, wrapped up in a meta-package. J.R. keeps talking about wanting to write a novel, but others tell him that the publishing world is gravitating towards memoirs. So J.R. then decides to write a memoir. Not because he has anything to say about himself, but rather because that's what publishers want. The film tries to wrap this up neatly by having J.R. confront his estranged father as a way of spicing up the memoir, but that, too, feels incredibly hollow. We never get that sense that J.R. is doing anything without the ulterior motive of selling his memoir to the highest-bidder. 

Perhaps that's what drew Clooney to this material. Like J.R., he's a storyteller with no real story to tell. Sheridan's performance is flat, and having Ron Livingston serve as narrator adds nothing — why not have Sheridan, who has a very adult voice, do the narration, too? The occasional bright spot does crop up, like a strong scene where Lloyd attends a school function with J.R. and sheds his grumpy nature long enough to charm everyone. But the bulk of "The Tender Bar" merely sits there, lifeless, begging us to actually give a damn.

In the end, Affleck is the film's only real draw. His funny, uncouth, working-class schlub performance breathes much-needed oxygen into the film's lungs, but at the end of the day, this isn't his story, and it really should've been. When "The Tender Bar" ended, I decided I would be perfectly happy to never see another George Clooney-directed film again. But you can bet your ass I'll be first in line for whatever Affleck does next. 

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10