The Tender Bar review — A writer grows up in the “good ol’ days”

Directed by George Clooney | Written by William Monahan and J.R. Moehringer | 106 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Amazon Prime 

A shaggy dog story like this doesn’t get made too often. I have to assume its existence has a lot to do with the heft George Clooney can swing in the industry as a filmmaker. It got a very low-key release more than a year ago and I’m late to catch up with it, but am very glad I did. It’s a sweet little charmer.

It really feels like an autobiographical novel adaptation, though. The pacing, the characterization, it cleaves from the usual acts and beats of mainstream movies, but that’s to its credit. Once you plug into its rhythms it’s an entirely involving entertainment.

It’s the 1970s-set story of a boy who becomes a man, JR Maguire (Daniel Ranieri as a kid, Tye Sheridan later on), whose mother, Dorothy (Lily Rabe), is forced by finances and circumstances to move back in with her parents (Christopher Lloyd and Sondra James) on Long Island, New York. This cues the key relationship in the movie, between JR and his uncle, bar owner Charlie (Ben Affleck, solid). Much of the light humour in this first half comes from Charlie’s taking on a paternal role in JR’s life and instructing him on all the appropriate ways for men to behave, this while JR’s mother struggles with health challenges and gets grief from her curmudgeonly father.

I wouldn’t call the movie a hardcore coming-of-age picture since there’s nothing at all hardcore about it. It has a lovely, laid-back quality, where Charlie and his drinking buddies at the bar form a chorus of sorts, an orthodox guide to JR’s upbringing in the absence of a father figure.

Yes, his biological father, a popular radio disc jockey,  does make an appearance. He ends up being important to JR’s coming to terms with his identity, but in the film proves himself to be a character without much in the way of empathetic qualities, a genuinely absent Dad.

The easy-going 1970s era of the first half of the picture is replaced by JR’s life as a teenager, someone who does fulfill his mother’s dreams of his going to an Ivy League college in the 1980s, but his own dreams of being a writer complicate his education as does his passion for Sidney (Briana Middleton), a classmate who strings him along but won’t commit.

Though the shift in time periods, and the unpredictable tang of memoir, threatens to capsize any possibility of real drama, the warmth of the first half carries over into the rest of the movie. Affleck can take a lot of credit for that — his Charlie gets the lion’s share of great moments — but Clooney does a great job managing tone, one of the hardest things to do as a filmmaker.

His past few films — The Ides of March, The Monuments Men, Suburbicon, and The Midnight Sky — have all had things to recommend them while sometimes struggling due to Clooney’s affection for a leisurely pace or easy-going vibe. With this material, he’s found his sweet spot.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.