Memoirs don’t necessarily need a shape because memories tend to thrive on essence and detail more than they require form. But they have to feel purposeful, because otherwise, why is someone else’s past worth our time?
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist JR Moehringer found a captive readership and critical acclaim with his vivid 2005 remembrance “The Tender Bar,” about the nurturing fellowship a corner dive and its colorful denizens provided to a growing boy missing a father. But the movie version written by William Monahan and directed by George Clooney is like drinking the watery remains of a scotch on the rocks: you can guess what it was, but it definitely isn’t that anymore.
It’s surprising that this effort from Clooney is as flavorless and unrooted as it is, because his better directorial turns are the ones grounded in character more than style. His “Tender Bar” does boast one solid asset on that front in Ben Affleck’s magnetic turn as Uncle Charlie, the hard-drinking, profanely wise, well-read figure whom young JR (first Daniel Ranieri, then Tye Sheridan) looks up to.
In the early parts of the film, set in the early 1970s, Affleck is who provides the sense that the movie’s breezy, homey vibe is going somewhere. JR is nine, and with his financially strapped, protective single mom (Lily Rabe) moving into the Long Island house of his gruff grandfather (Christopher Lloyd), where it seems much of the extended clan occasionally decamps or at least visits. JR loves the atmosphere, but what’s missing is the deadbeat dad he’s never known — a deejay known as The Voice — save the times JR tries to listen to him before a family member shuts off the radio in disgust.
Which is where Uncle Charlie, who tends bar at a local spot called The Dickens, comes in as the surrogate dad with life advice (on “the male sciences” of drinking, women, and honor), encouragement when JR shows an aptitude for words (Charlie has a closet full of books), and a consideration that indicates he’ll always be there, as in, at the bar, at that house, and in JR’s life.
Even with the mostly unneeded voiceover (by Ron Livingston as the grown-up JR), the childhood scenes are scattered but just textured enough to land, as if Clooney’s modest goal was an easygoing good-dad/bad-dad memory piece. (It helps having pros like Rabe and Lloyd on the scene.) But the moment Sheridan takes over after a half hour or so, and we’re off to Yale, the movie’s already minor coming-of-age appeal is replaced by a flat, bland college narrative of class insecurity marked by a crushingly uninteresting on-off romance JR has with Sidney (Briana Middleton), an elusive rich girl, and a dream for JR few movies have ever made compelling: the desire to be a writer.
With the dull Yale section segueing into the equally dull trying-to-land-a-job-at–The New York Times section, the movie suffers so much from Affleck’s reduced screen time growling wisecracks with a cigarette dangling that you realize he’s the real graduation success story here, taking on character parts that make better use of his natural, roguish charm than all those lackluster leading-man gigs ever did.
Sheridan (in the part Affleck would have played 20 years ago) is a fine actor typically, but he’s a victim here of a middle-of-the-road movie’s surface-skimming sense of time. Scenes never play like experiences, rather just moments checked off on a memory list, with a lesson maybe articulated but hardly absorbed, and one more era-specific pop song dropped in for ready-made mood glossing.
As for the period ambiance, the cars, interiors, and costumer Jenny Eagan’s threads admirably do their part without ever seeming too showy, but in terms of the story, it’s odd what little atmospheric impact Uncle Charlie’s bar has as a place of significance when JR makes return appearances, alone or with his college pals (Rhenzy Feliz and Ivan Leung). Plus, the regulars (played by Max Casella, Michael Braun, and Matthew Delamater) barely register as anything other than sitcom types who know how to button a scene with a one-liner. The Dickens, supposedly a haven in the narrative, is only ever a location.
As for the absent-father stuff, it’s occasionally mentioned as a theme supposedly important, but rarely with any attendant emotion. By the time that angle does carry some weight — when JR arranges to meet his birth father (an effective Max Martini) and there’s attention to detail, tang, and subtext to the exchanges, and a bitter thickness in the air — you wonder why this dimensionality wasn’t the main ingredient in “The Tender Bar” all along.
“The Tender Bar” opens in U.S. theaters Dec. 17 and on Prime Video Jan. 7.