George Clooney takes the director’s chair to translate the J.R. Moehringer novel “The Tender Bar” into movie form.
Situated comfortably, Clooney takes a secure position to tell a story safely, taking few chances yet still managing to pull on our heartstrings as a young boy grows up amidst the tutelage of his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), owner of The Dickens watering hole, and the cohorts along the book-lined bar shelves.
Daniel Ranieri steals the show as the Young JR, as he and his mom (Lily Rabe) find themselves back in a dysfunctional family dynamic headed by Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd).
It’s a chaotic home, but it is a home. Mom has made a few poor decisions, which has left her penniless with no choice but to return to her family.
Uncle Charlie, who also lives here, attempts to teach the youngster some key lessons in life, and JR’s mom instills her dreams on the boy that he one day will attend an Ivy League school and become a lawyer. Mom’s dreams and JR’s differ, as he finds himself fighting his familial history and falling in love.
It’s a heartfelt story that is engaging, thanks in particular to Affleck, Ranieri and Lloyd. There’s a chemistry among them all that makes the story not only credible but relatable as we root for the young boy to succeed.
As the years swiftly pass, Young JR is now a teen, ready to apply to a college he cannot afford, but it is his mother’s dream. And this is where the sudden gear shifts and the wheels begin to spin, bogging down the story.
The moments Clooney captures, however, are priceless. Affleck is more comfortable in his own skin, relaxing and showing us what a seasoned actor can bring to a story. Connecting with Ranieri, the two bring us into the film making it an emotionally beautiful tribute to the importance of family.
With plenty of these evocative segments sprinkled throughout the film, we yearn to know how it all ends, even as the story loses its gusto in the second act.
Moments don’t make a story, but there are plenty to remember in “The Tender Bar.” One such moment shows Lloyd’s character dusting off his curmudgeon suit as his wife, Grandma (Sondra James), remarks she remembers this man. It’s so touching it brings tears to your eyes.
The heart of the story lies in the Young JR’s hands, seeing the world through his eyes as his deadbeat dad lets him down time after time and his world centers around his idol, Uncle Charlie. With the love and respect he has for his mother, this little guy carries it all, inviting us along on his journey.
While Tye Sheridan adequately portrays the older JR, it is the script that lets us down. Navigating love, college, work and family obligation, the story attempts to cover too much in too little time, and we become disconnected, yearning for the younger version to return and give us more depth.
“The Tender Bar” is a sweet story of the need for family as one boy is dealt a difficult hand. Great performances from an ensemble cast elevate the story, but the second act puts the brakes on and the illogical conclusion must be overlooked in order to appreciate the journey we just traveled.
The heartfelt moments, however, are worth the time as are Lloyd, Ranieri and Affleck’s performances.
Reel Talk rating: 3 stars