The projects that George Clooney chooses to direct almost seem as though they’re drawn out of a hat. That’s not a criticism, either, but just speaks to how you never can peg what he’s going to helm next. Clooney the actor and Clooney the filmmaker do appear to have differing tastes, which is actually fairly interesting. Behind the camera, he’s had at least one undisputed hit with Good Night and Good Luck, as well as the deeply underrated The Ides of March. Now, you can add The Tender Bar to the mix, as it’s as heartwarming as you’ve ever seen Clooney’s directorial projects get. Truly, this film knocked me out, both for its charm and for a scene-stealing supporting turn.
The Tender Bar is not just Clooney at his most affectionate, but Ben Affleck as well. They clearly love the story, as well as the wise Uncle that Affleck is playing. It’s smart calculus too, since this is one of the most entertaining cinematic characters of 2021. If he’s about to score his first Academy Award nomination for acting (and perhaps even take home the Oscar), it’ll be a worthy character, to say the least.
Based on the memoir of the same name by J.R. Moehringer, we meet Jr (Daniel Ranieri) as he and his mother (Lily Rabe) driving home to her father’s house on Long Island. Estranged from her husband/Jr’s father, a radio personality (Max Martini), they’re forced to take up residence alongside her siblings in the home of Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) a crabby old man. The highlight for Jr is Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), a bartender and giver of advice to his young nephew. Spending as much time with him as he can, both at home and at the bar, Jr finds a father figure where none has previously existed. Giving him life lessons and instilling a love of reading in the boy, Charlie begins to shape him into someone with the potential to go far in life. Mom wants Jr at Yale, and if he can get the grades, Charlie may even find some money for him.
As a teenager and then college student/graduate Jr (now played by Tye Sheridan) puts many of his uncle’s lessons to use. Of course, while at Yale, a girl (Briana Middleton) provides some tough lessons as well. Determined to be a writer but without quite the life experiences he’s requiring, it’s clear that not just more time with Uncle Charlie is needed, but also a reckoning with his father. Even knowing how this all must turn out, watching this boy become a man is fairly compelling.
Ben Affleck may not be the lead, but he leaves easily the biggest impression in the movie. He’s crafted either the Uncle we fondly remember or the one we wish we’d had. Affleck makes Charlie old school in some ways, but actually fairly modern in others. You hang on every word he says. Truly, this is Affleck in complete mastery of his craft, understanding the character in a very real way. He’s heads and tails best in show, but Daniel Ranieri and Tye Sheridan combine to do good work as our protagonist. Ranieri puts in one of the better performances by a young actor this year, while Sheridan continues to show us new angles to his talents. While Christopher Lloyd and Lily Rabe don’t have too much to do, they have individual scenes where they shine. Supporting players include Max Casella, Rhenzy Feliz, Sondra James, and more, alongside the aforementioned Max Martini and Brianna Middleton. Truly though, Affleck is the shining star.
Director George Clooney and writer William Monahan take Moehringer’s story and lovingly bring it to the screen. Clooney the director really makes you feel like you’re on Long Island, with cinematographer Martin Ruhe bringing old school suburban New York to life. He also finds the perfect amount of Affleck to use, so you always are left wanting another scene with him. Monahan’s script doesn’t quite sing like The Departed, but it’s both very funny and extremely touching. While it may not be flashy, it’s rock-solid and effective work all around.
The Oscar prospects for The Tender Bar do largely center on Ben Affleck in Best Supporting Actor, but don’t sleep on this flick as a Best Picture player. This may play better to Academy members and the general public than to critics, considering its earnestness. If so, while the critics group section of the precursor season might ignore it, watch out for Affleck in Supporting Actor. If he becomes a frontrunner (and he should, after a huge snub last year for The Way Back), alongside perhaps a citation for the film in Best Adapted Screenplay, then Picture could definitely be in play.
The Tender Bar is about as charming and heartwarming as a movie like this gets. Leave your cynicism at the door and there’s a good chance that this one wins you over. It’s both exactly what you think it is and also something fairly different. Even just for Affleck’s work, this movie is worth seeing. However, for me, the whole package is among my favorite films of the year. Don’t miss it.