George Clooney has been directing films for nearly 20 years. It’s worth mentioning because you’d never guess by watching The Tender Bar — a distressingly and depressingly amateurish coming-of-age story opening in theaters Wednesday and streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning Jan. 7, 2022.
Ostensibly adapted from writer J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir about his Long Island childhood, Bar really just gaffles 1970s vibes from other, better films — from a shopworn soundtrack of “hey, man, remember when music was music” standards to its copious mutton chops and mustaches. If not for names like Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan and Christopher Lloyd, this wide-lapel dud could easily be the Asylum version of Licorice Pizza or, to borrow its parlance, the well-drink version of a decent cocktail.
There is a great film this year in which an uncle adopts a position of surrogate paternalism for his young, struggling nephew. But where C’mon, C’mon uses the same running time to sketch a tale that feels true and tough, Bar —aka C’mahn, C’mahn —just traffics in the sort of platitudes you’d read behind a bar or the slurred words of “wisdom” you’d pick up from alley stumblebums taking a piss on the building.
Affleck’s Uncle Charlie literally reintroduces himself to young J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) with his meaty palms upraised in a whaddayaexpect pose. J.R. and his mother, Dorothy (Lily Rabe), have arrived back at Dorothy’s childhood home, lorded over by Christopher Lloyd’s cantankerous patriarch, after leaving behind J.R.’s deadbeat dad (Max Martini). He’s a rock-radio DJ known as the Voice to whose frequency the Moehringers are always strangely attuned, prompting Dorothy to destroy the equipment. As Dorothy tries to get back on her feet, Charlie takes J.R. under his wing for long days at the Dickens, the book-adorned bar where Charlie slings drinks. Here, J.R. is introduced to the joint’s namesake, inspiring his odyssey to acquire education and experiences that could help him ascend to the ranks of the greats.
With all due respect to Moehringer’s actual life and memoir (unread by this reviewer), there is nothing memorable depicted here — from the middling story of heartbreak with an on-off fling named Sidney (Briana Middleton) to milquetoast matters in his stint as a New York Times copy boy and health scares that come for Dorothy and Charlie. It doesn’t help that screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) plays Three-card Monte with your ability to invest in any incarnation of J.R., flinging interchangeably between young, teenaged and (through drippy voiceover) adult J.R. As the teen- and college-aged version of J.R., Sheridan (Ready Player One) also has just one gear as a downbeat drip, for whom the Voice continues to pop up like a case of existential herpes he can’t shake.
The Tender Bar seems to close the book on the Voice early, especially with an unexpectedly chipper tone for voiceover about his threats of kidnapping and murder against J.R. and Dorothy. But there would be no movie without him. There would be no writing career for J.R. without him, either, as the monolith past which he will always try to move. The Voice knows this and even tells him as much during a final-act confrontation. Frankly, The Tender Bar would be more interesting if all of its characters somehow knew they were lightly fictionalized sketches within Moehringer’s memoir. That would lend sense to not one, but two, characters telling J.R. “publishing is going more towards mem-whah.” Instead, this movie is as meaty as the obstinate farts let loose by Lloyd (essentially anonymized here after his great guns-blazing return in Nobody earlier this year).
Meanwhile, Clooney’s camera is as ugly as it’s ever been, as Dramatic Chipmunk zooms and wobbly establishing shots abound. Thin as it was, at least 2020’s The Midnight Sky boasted some panache and pizzazz. Frankly, if he and Affleck were going to do a project together, they should have just sat down to swap stories about the burdens of being beleaguered Batmen. Indeed, Affleck’s amiability is the sole asset in this boozy boondoggle. There’s otherwise zero sense of purpose, point or emotional authenticity. At one point, adult J.R. muses about the Voice, “What’s that line about old dogs and new tricks?” The Tender Bar has but two things to teach you: jack and shit.