Slice of life Americana films only truly work about once in every six or seven attempts.
Most of the time, these period-driven, small town family dramas attempt to bite off more than they can chew by introducing more characters than they can give adequate time to or by muddling the narrative with time jumps or by simply being bland.
All these things, unfortunately, are true of George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Tender Bar, recently released in theaters and now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Based on the memoir by Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar follows a young boy with an absentee father growing up on Long Island in search of male role models and finding wisdom in his uncle’s tavern.
Writer William Monahan, most notable for his screenplay for Oscar winner The Departed, provides Clooney with a wildly uneven script that has some terrific individual moments between a young JR and his uncle but languishes for far too long on JR’s college years without providing enough emotional connection to his youth.
The result is an often tedious melodrama that leans heavy on the hard luck story of Moehringer’s youth much like last year’s Hillbilly Elegy, a big-budget, R-rated version of a Hallmark movie that fails to pay off emotionally in the end and will leave some viewers bored.
By far the most compelling performance in the entire film, Ben Affleck shows incredible depth of heart behind a mostly stern and solemn face as JR’s uncle Charlie. Affleck is given the best lines in Monahan’s screenplay and delivers them with an unspoken compassion that radiates off the screen and allows audiences someone to bond with emotionally.
He does a fantastic job introducing audiences to first-time actor Daniel Ranieri, who plays a nine-year-old JR with wide, inquisitive eyes and with a vast admiration for his uncle Charlie. Conversations between Ranieri and Affleck have genuine affection that leave viewers wanting more from the relationship than what Clooney and Monahan are willing to offer.
Lily Rabe does a capable job of playing JR’s mother throughout, but with limited character development and Monahan largely sidelining her to highlight Charlie, there’s not much beyond a surface level examination of any of the women in JR’s life. His grandmother largely serves as a stand-in background character and audiences never truly get a picture of why JR becomes obsessed with his college girlfriend.
Ty Sheridan plays the collegiate JR well, but the whole older JR experience is so clumsily written and staged that it’s impossible to separate his performance from the poor craftsmanship around it.
There’s almost entirely no need for a voiceover in The Tender Bar, though Clooney and Monahan feel compelled to push one into the narrative randomly to help provide context that it appears they couldn’t put into the actual film through character work or an additional scene.
Even though Ron Livingston’s cadence keeps in tone with the overall narrative, his presence simply cheapens the entire film and somewhat jars audiences the first time Livingston narrates.
There are some sharp visuals at times from cinematographer Martin Ruhe and the score from composer Dara Taylor does well to round out some more compelling moments.
Affleck received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor for his work on the film, but it’s highly unlikely that it will translate to an Oscar nomination despite being the only real shot for The Tender Bar to receive acclaim from The Academy.
The family-driven melodrama shouldn’t be anything potential viewers rush out to theaters to see, but the ease of access through Amazon Prime and exceptional work from Affleck in a large supporting role make The Tender Bar a mild, yet tepid recommendation.