The Tender Bar (2021)

Director: George Clooney

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Certification: 15

Starring: Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, Max Martini, Sondra James, Daniel Ranieri, Ron Livingston

After directing science-fiction feature The Midnight Sky, George Clooney takes a more grounded path in adapting J.R. Moehringer's best-selling memoir. The story begins when a young J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) and his struggling mother (Lily Rabe) move back into the crowded house of her father (Christopher Lloyd), after being abandoned by J.R.'s father. Under the guidance of his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), an older J.R. (Tye Sheridan) follows his dreams of becoming a writer.

Working off William Monahan's screenplay, Clooney makes getting behind the relationships and characters seem so simple. J.R. looks up to his bartending uncle as the father-figure he longs for, and through the book-themed bar Charlie owns, falls in love with reading. There's a real sense of community among the patrons, and it's easy to believe this place offering drinks and scintillating discussions would have such an impact upon J.R. would become.

Returning to the family home affects J.R. and his mother differently, as the boy adores the familial feel while his mother feels like a failure for coming back. Deep down, they both know the crotchety grandpa is actually big-hearted and enjoys sharing his home with his family. This is best showcased in a sweet moment where Grandpa accompanies J.R. to a father-son event, although effective moments like this highlight how the scattershot storytelling makes characters vanish for long stretches.

Longing for a paternal relationship, J.R.'s only connection with his unnamed father comes from hearing his voice on his radio show. This struggle extends to J.R. not knowing who he is, as his name may be short for Junior yet he doesn't know what he's a junior of. There's much interesting material in this story and it unfortunately becomes sidelined in the second-half, when the character transitions into a lovelorn puppy dog played by Tye Sheridan. As the focus shifts from Affleck's charming father-figure looking out for his nephew, one misses Daniel Ranieri's performance from the delightful first-half. In it's place is a moody portrayal inhabiting a tiresome second-half.

A film with its heart in the right place, there's much charm to this latest feature directed by George Clooney. It's a story that's been done better many times before, although the lacking focus and uneven halves hurt it more than any familiarity. Come for Ben Affleck's winning performance, and wonder why the film doesn't follow him more.

The Tender Bar is available in cinemas now, and streaming on Amazon Prime from January 7th 2022.