The Tender Bar is a bland, clueless film that finds Clooney the director at this most narcotized.
While his career in front of the camera has shown an increased playfulness and willingness to poke fun at his movie star persona, George Clooney’s career as a director has been in steady decline since his Oscar success with Goodnight and Good Luck way back in 2005. From the throwaway comedy Leatherheads to the largely forgotten political thriller The Ides of March to the wannabe dark comedy Suburbicon to the science fiction misfire The Midnight Sky (I’ll admit to having warm feelings for The Monuments Men), Clooney’s films seem to reflect an increasing sense of creative ennui.
Yet nowhere has that artistic stagnation been clearer than in his latest film, The Tender Bar, based on the memoir by journalist J.R. Moehringer, chronicling the author’s childhood growing up fatherless amongst the denizens of his uncle’s neighborhood bar. Clooney has never seemed less interested in or engaged by a work than he does here, slapping together a bland piffle of a film that no one involved seems to want to make. Held together by a narrated flashback structure, in which young Moehringer relates his story to a priest on the train, The Tender Bar unfolds like a confessional — but there’s nothing particularly interesting to confess. His father was an absent alcoholic radio personality, his mother was a working single mom desperately trying to make ends meet, his uncle a caring surrogate father; it’s all just painfully… normal. And yet, the film seems to think — and flaccidly foist upon the viewer — that Moehringer had some kind of extraordinary childhood that led to his acceptance at Yale and a career at the New York Times, but it’s such a familiar-looking childhood that it’s hard to care about any of it. Clooney directs this like a TV movie of the week, imbuing tiny moments with unearned gravitas that do not seem warranted by the text. In fact, not only is Moehringer’s story — at least as presented here — unspectacular, it’s actually quite relatable, and had it been treated as such, The Tender Bar might have been a more engaging film. Instead, it’s plagued by many of the same issues as Kenneth Branagh’s fellow Oscar hopeful, Belfast — the misguided perception that a remarkably ordinary upbringing is somehow extraordinary and worthy of a feature film.
The film doesn’t even bother to make much use out of its eponymous bar, which is seemingly its most unique aspect. If the implication here is that Moehringer was supposedly raised (and raised well) by the quirky characters who frequent his uncle’s bar, why do they barely factor into the film? The Tender Bar is ostensibly a tale of a boy in search of a father figure and finding many manly influences inside an unlikely venue that help to counteract the toxicity of his absent father, both in the bar and in the pages of the Dickens novels that line its walls and give the watering hole its name. But Clooney all but ignores the bar to focus on Moehringer’s school career and his failed romances, and the ostensibly Dickensian rogue’s gallery of kindhearted ruffians are all but ignored. It’s likely many will come away from the film wondering why any of this is to be cared about, what with its palpably disinterested cast and direction that has all the fire of a visitor being forced to endure a family slideshow full of people they’ve never met. The film even wastes the presence of Christopher Lloyd, whose appearances in major motion pictures are now a cherished rarity, and whose limited scenes are the film’s lone bright spot.
The most telling problem here is that it’s difficult to watch The Tender Bar and have any sense of what Clooney saw in the material that inspired him to direct it, as there’s nothing put to screen that would suggest his creative juices were flowing. Perhaps a celebrity of Clooney’s magnitude just can’t relate to a lightly hardscrabble upbringing like Moehringer’s — it’s ultimately a familiar tale that Clooney treats like a one-in-a-million triumph over adversity. Call it a northern answer to Hillbilly Elegy; less problematic, certainly, but no less clueless about its subjects’ actual struggles.
You can catch George Clooney’s The Tender Bar in theaters on December 17 or streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning on January 7.