Memories don’t necessarily need form, as memories tend to develop more on essence and detail than they need form. But they must feel determined, because if not, why is someone else’s past worth our time?
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist JR Moehringer found captive and critically acclaimed readership with his vivid recollection of 2005’s “The Tender Bar,” of the nurturing brotherhood that a street corner and its colorful inhabitants brought to a growing boy that a father misses. But the movie version written by William Monahan and directed by George Clooney is like drinking the watery leftovers of a scotch on the rocks: you can guess what it was, but it’s definitely not it anymore.
It’s surprising that this Clooney effort is so bland and rootless, as his best directorial tricks are those that are more grounded in character than style. His “Tender Bar” has a solid trump card on that front in Ben Affleck’s magnetic turn as Uncle Charlie, the drinker, the profane, cultured figure that young JR (first Daniel Ranieri, then Tye Sheridan) admires. .
In the early parts of the film, which take place in the early 1970s, Affleck is the one who makes the film’s airy and warm vibe feel like it’s going somewhere. JR is nine years old and, with his protective and cash-strapped single mother (Lily Rabe), moving into the Long Island home of his gruff grandfather (Christopher Lloyd), where it appears much of the clan extensive scampering occasionally or at least visiting. JR loves the atmosphere, but what he lacks is the deadbeat dad he never knew – a DJ known as The Voice – saves the time JR tries to listen to him before he goes. ‘a family member turns off the radio in disgust.
This is where Uncle Charlie, who runs a bar at a local place called The Dickens, steps in as a surrogate dad with life advice (on the “male sciences” of drink, women and men. honor), encouragement when JR shows an aptitude for words (Charlie has a closet full of books) and a consideration that indicates that he will always be there, like in, at the bar, in this house and in JR’s life. .
Even with the mostly unnecessary voiceover (by Ron Livingston as the adult JR), the childhood scenes are scattered but just textured enough to land, as if Clooney’s modest purpose was a piece of good-father memory. / easy going bad dad. (It helps to have pros like Rabe and Lloyd on the scene.) But by the time Sheridan takes over after about a half an hour, and we leave for Yale, the film’s already minor lure for the switch to l adulthood is replaced by an apartment, bland academic tale of classroom insecurity marked by an uninspiring, intermittent romance that JR has with Sidney (Briana Middleton), an elusive rich girl and a dream for JR that few movies have. never made convincing: the desire to be a writer.
With Yale’s boring section shifting to the equally boring section of trying to land a job at the New York Times, the movie suffers so much from the reduced screen time of Affleck growling jokes with a hanging cigarette that you you realize he’s the real graduation success story here, taking on character roles that make better use of his natural, mischievous charm than all those drab gigs of top-tier men.
Sheridan (in the role Affleck would have played 20 years ago) is generally a good actor, but here he falls victim to the sense of time scratching the surface of an intermediate film. The scenes never play out as experiences, but rather as moments ticked off a list of memories, with a lesson perhaps articulated but barely absorbed, and another era-specific pop song is added for a ready mood. employment.
As for the period vibe, the cars, interiors, and threads of costume designer Jenny Eagan do their part admirably without ever appearing too flashy, but in terms of history, it’s odd how little atmospheric impact it is. Uncle Charlie’s bar takes center stage when JR makes comeback appearances, either alone or with his college buddies (Rhenzy Feliz and Ivan Leung). Plus, regulars (played by Max Casella, Michael Braun, and Matthew Delamer) barely register as anything other than sitcom types who know how to button a scene with one line. The Dickens, supposed to be a refuge in the narrative, is never more than a place.
As for the absent father stuff, it is sometimes mentioned as a supposedly important theme, but rarely with the emotion that comes with it. When that angle carries weight – when JR manages to meet his biological father (an effective Max Martini) and there is attention to detail, flavor and subtext of the exchanges, and thickness bitter in the air – you wonder why dimensionality wasn’t the main ingredient in “The Tender Bar” from the start.
“The Tender Bar” opens in US theaters on December 17th and on Prime Video on January 7th.