A scattershot film adapted from the 2005 memoir of the same name by J.R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar is a story that never comes to life when making the leap from the page to the screen.
There are some intriguing performances that are ultimately let down by a haphazard narrative which only scratches the surface of the deeper themes it was grasping at.
Notable among them is Ben Affleck as Uncle Charlie, a charming Long Island bar owner whose devil-may-care attitude makes him an unlikely father figure to Tye Sheridan's J.R. Yet that is exactly the role Charlie will have to fill when his sister (J.R.'s mom), played by an underutilized Lily Rabe, moves back into the family home as she looks to start fresh. She brings along J.R., potrayed in his childhood years by the precocious Daniel Ranieri in his debut, who spends much of his early time there listening to his absent and alcoholic dad. Said father is a broadcast personality known as "The Voice," and the radio is a way that J.R. tragically attempts to connect with him. Charlie soon takes the kid under his wing, giving him humorous yet heartfelt advice on what it means to be a good man.
Affleck is the best part of the film, delicately capturing the caring yet crude energy of Charlie as he imparts wisdom to his nephew, all while tending bar. Much of the film is spent seeing J.R. grow up with all the various eccentric characters found in the bar serving as his support network.
Barring Affleck's performance, there is not much noteworthy about The Tender Bar. It is all rather trite and meandering, a by-the-numbers coming of age story with most characters proving to be paper-thin approximations of real people at best.
It is all about J.R. looking to be a writer and — as we know he succeeds due to the film being based on a memoir — it is woefully lacking a sense of deeper engagement. You've seen this film before, and it doesn't do anything unique with the stock narrative. There are moments of heart, including a standout scene where Christopher Lloyd's bitter Grandpa visits J.R.'s school in place of his father. Still, much of the film rings hollow.
In particular, an early love interest that J.R. discovered in college is as perplexing as it is pedestrian. If some of the other characters were paper thin, Briana Middleton's Sidney is rendered practically invisible. This is despite Middleton's best efforts as she tries to instill a flat character with something resembling more than one dimension. Instead, she exists just to give J.R. his first heartbreak, which he then carries with him as a resentment that weighs the film down.
The direction by George Clooney, whose previous outings behind the camera have at least been engaging, just is not up to task here. There is nothing particularly interesting visually or in how the story is framed. In fact, there are many scenes where the film does wildly out of place zooms at inopportune moments that feel like they are lifted from a sitcom.
There is possibly something going on about masculinity and abandonment that exists just underneath the surface of the story, though it never is excavated. Instead, The Tender Bar is content to serve you a stiff yet bland drink and chat it up without much of anything substantial to say. ♦THE TENDER BAR