I was a little surprised to see an Academy DVD of George Clooney’s “The Tender Bar” arrive over the weekend. Even though it was screened a while ago in LA with Jackson Browne playing some tunes at a reception, this Amazon Studios film has been almost impossible to get hold of.
Now I know why. JR Moehringer’s memoir was an interesting task to undertake for Clooney as a director. It’s a small, quiet movie. Clooney and William Monahan have done a lovely job adapting it. Ben Affleck gives an affecting performance. But there’s insubstantial-ness to it that makes “The Tender Bar” a great film for streaming, but not for movie theaters.
Moehringer’s father was an itinerant radio show host who left his wife and kid and couldn’t keep a job for long. So JR’s mother (Lily Rabe, top notch) brings him back to her father’s working class ramshackle house with all the other members of her family who are nonstarters. That includes Affleck as Rabe’s brother. He failed to launch as an adult years ago and now runs the Dickens bar around the corner.
Like “Hillbilly Elegy,” this is the story of a bright kid with an absent father, raised by women and an uncle, who studies hard so he can go to an Ivy League school and make something of himself. Richard Jenkins is the grandfather who’s a “character.” The whole idea is to get out of Long Island and see the world. (In real life, Moerhinger didn’t even stay in Brooklyn that long. His bio says he graduated from high school in Scottsdale, Arizona.)
The film has great soundtrack of 70s songs, and there are just a couple of Jackson Browne numbers but no one mentions him. I don’t know why he played at that Hollywood party. Daniel Rainieri is a charming kid playing young JR, and Tye Sheridan does what he can to make a slightly older JR interesting. But the best bits are in Brooklyn, not at Yale, where JR falls for a Black girl from a wealthy family who strings him along for what seems like years.
Affleck is who people will follow here, and he reminds us that he’s not just Batman and JLo and tabloids. If only his character had its own story arc, Ben could have made the Oscar short list for Best Supporting Actor. But I don’t see it. He doesn’t do much except dispense beer and advice. He does it well but it’s not enough.