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The Tender Bar Review – IGN

The Tender Bar in select LA & NY theaters Dec. 17, 2021, and in theaters nationwide Dec. 22, 2021.

It’s nice to see George Clooney ramping up his frequency in the director’s chair since Suburbicon (2017) because he’s certainly not interested in repeating himself. His follow up to last year’s moody and reflective sci-fi adaption The Midnight Sky is another adaptation, this time of Pulitzer Prize-winning author J. R. Moehringer’s memoir, The Tender Bar.

While both films have painful family dynamics simmering in their hearts, The Tender Bar might as well be the polar opposite of The Midnight Sky in tone, aesthetic, and pacing. It follows Moehringer’s life from his impressionable boyhood in the ‘70s, living with his single mother at her parents’ Long Island home, through to his college life at Yale and his first job out of school in New York City.

Told in non-linear style, the narrative opens with young J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) unceremoniously whisked by his mother (Lily Rabe) back to her childhood home because of dire money troubles. Her ex is a famous DJ (Max Martini) who skipped out on them, so she boomerangs back in and out of the care of her ever-cranky father (Christopher Lloyd) and long-suffering mother (Sondra James) to raise her boy with some stability. Throwing in his parenting support for his sister is Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), the perennial bachelor of the family who runs the local watering hole.

As young J.R. figures out his new normal, Clooney and cinematographer Martin Ruhe capture the neighborhood and era with the dappled light of happy memories, and the color palette imbued by the cars and clothes of the late ‘70s. There’s even an omnipotent, and unnecessary, narration by future J.R. (Ron Livingston) that dips in and out The Wonder Years style when Clooney needs to get some exposition unloaded, or to clarify where J.R.’s inner emotional compass is pointing. All of it makes for a very warm watch as Ranieri’s kid eyes (framed by huge eyelashes) soak up the characters that populate his mother’s world. The most impactful is his very learned Uncle Charlie, who dispels blunt but funny life lessons to his nephew, and then lets his barfly friends fill in some of the rest. It’s also refreshing to watch a story where the helicopter parenting of the 21st century is entirely absent as kid J.R. gets taught to steer his uncle’s car before he can touch the pedals, makes cigarette runs for grandpa, and learns to buy rounds for the guys with the change.

And then The Tender Bar jumps forward to J.R.’s senior year in high school, where actor Tye Sheridan taps in to take over the role. He’s now chasing his mother’s dream of getting into Yale and becoming a lawyer. Once accepted, he meets his own rat pack of friends who encourage him to follow his passionate writing aspirations. But J.R’s world is really turned on its axis when he falls for fellow co-ed, Sidney (Briana Middleton). She’s from an upper middle class family, which brings forth all of his poor self-esteem issues, inherited from his mother and the rejection of his alcoholic, narcissistic father.

The bouncing between childhood and his young adulthood timelines and narration smoothes out by the last act. But there’s an overreliance on those techniques when Clooney should just trust his expertly assembled ensemble, who do everything needed to support the story of J.R.’s maturation. Affleck is especially strong in a role that’s loud and comedic, but also heartfelt when needed as he essentially fills the father role for J.R. his whole life. Rabe is also great as the rock of J.R.’s world, fighting for her kid despite living under the roof of parents who didn’t do the same for her. And both Ranieri and Sheridan are up to the task of passing the baton between each other to create a character you care about, and understand in his struggles.

All in all, Clooney has a deft hand in telling a character drama.

It can get heavy-handed and melodramatic at times, especially whenever J.R.’s dad comes back in the picture. He’s every alcoholic, a-hole dad cliche rolled into one and there’s no nuance to him, which makes for some overwrought scenes. And the last 25 minutes are oddly rushed, like the film ran out of steam dealing with J.D.’s issues of love, work, and daddy issues, so all of it just gets a tidy conclusion. Not to mention, like Licorice Pizza, there’s an over indulgence in the AM radio, needle drop soundtrack, where every few minutes another one slides into the sonic landscape like a never-ending nostalgic jukebox. It’s a shame, because composer Dara Taylor does the best she can to create a wistful score with the space given to her, but it’s not a lot.

All in all, Clooney has a deft hand in telling a character drama. He’s got a fine eye for casting great actors and then giving them the runway to do their thing to the best of their abilities. And he’s especially adept at getting a winning performance out of Ranieri, who carries the weight of good chunks of the film on very assured, albeit small, shoulders.

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