The nature of movie criticism is to dissect the many different meanings a film can possess, determining for an audience whether said film is worth watching based on how one’s interpretations fare. Many people hold movies up to a uniform standard of complexity and meaning, but for me it depends on what direction a filmmaker is trying to go. THE TENDER BAR, a new film directed by George Clooney, is a coming-of-age story based on a memoir by acclaimed journalist and author J.R. Moehringer. Young JR (a fantastic child performance from Daniel Ranieri) grows up in Long Island with his mother (Lily Rabe), grandfather (Christopher Lloyd), and charismatic uncle (Ben Affleck), and finds a home in the local bar in his small town. The film is a typical bildungsroman in every respect, and the movie is captivating in that sense. Many will justifiably complain that THE TENDER BAR never attempts to be anything more, but Clooney doesn’t shoot for the stars with this narrative, which never hinders the nostalgic story.
Perhaps the most desirable aspect of THE TENDER BAR is the authentic experience of childhood portrayed in the first half. The experiences of Young JR are lived-in, true to reality and portrayed in a way that will remind audiences of the people who influenced their lives when they were young. This film is filled with memorable supporting characters who may not seem important in a plot sense, but whose presence will impact JR’s upbringing in an irreversible manner. Most of us look back at our childhood with fond eyes even if there was hardship involved. The main character in this movie does the same, even though JR is constantly struggling with an absentee father and a lack of money. Time quickly passes to JR as a young adult (Tye Sheridan), and suddenly those small moments in childhood feel like more than small moments, but defining memories that one longs to relive. The nostalgia of one’s upbringing is fully captured in that sense, reminding viewers of the times when living was simpler.
Much of this blissful feeling of childhood is captured by JR’s Uncle Charlie, an eccentric yet caring man who serves as a father figure to JR. Affleck plays this character beautifully, continuing a hot streak of amazing performances he has maintained from The Way Back to The Last Duel. He steals every scene he is in, and delivers one of the best supporting performances in his career since the strikingly similar role he had in Good Will Hunting. The other highlight is Sheridan as the older JR, who proves himself yet again to be a great up-and-coming star who will snag some great roles in the near future. These two lively performances heighten the connection to these characters stolen straight from real life, and make THE TENDER BAR a compelling narrative to watch despite the relative lack of plot. The movie shares this quality with the 2021 film The Hand of God, and while THE TENDER BAR never has as much inherent meaning as the aforementioned example, it captivates equally.
Some may find THE TENDER BAR tedious or pointless, and though it contains some quality performances and direction, the film does contain moments that feel unnecessary. Clooney has not made a tight film with perfect pacing, instead settling for an imperfect experience full of superfluous, fleeting moments. Clearly the intention was to reflect the state of life, but at times more of a solid direction could be craved. However, the movie as a whole still succeeds at its goals of being a tender story of growing towards adulthood. Those who lived through the 70’s will also find plenty of nostalgia in the great production design, while also being reminded of their childhood loved ones in the parental figures portrayed. In this sense, THE TENDER BAR is a great success, making for an experience in which viewers will be able to connect with the real characters and find their own meaning.