There are stories that need to be told and stories that earn the right to be told. J.R. Moehringer’s best-selling 2006 memoir, The Tender Bar, fits squarely in the latter.
Mining from the author’s challenging childhood, this acclaimed text often adherently walks in the literary footsteps of other acclaimed memoirs, but it’s crafted with such acute retrospection and boisterous, tangible humanity that it’s hard not to be taken in by its ribald charm. Much like the raucous men that formed Moehringer’s worldview, The Tender Bar is fraught with troubles, trauma, and tribulations, but it’s endearing through the wry wit and the revered writer’s stellar prose.
Still, it’s clear that the reason why the story is so involving is because Moehringer earns the reader’s trust. His writing, his reflections, and his characterizations are key to the memoir’s success. To remove them would essentially be taking away the very thing that makes the book so impactful, so invigorating. Alas, in the process of adapting this best-selling memoir to the screen, director George Clooney loses the individual flourishes that make Moehringer’s book so pronounced, opting to make this personal story more universal and therefore more unremarkable.
Moehringer’s story is his own, and to cheapen it with fitfully entertaining but largely lackluster storytelling limits the film from reaching the same triumphs of this self-analyzing book. It’s a common Hollywood problem when it comes to attempts to translate autobiographical stories to the screen. To take the writer out of the process—or even when they’re still involved to some extent, as Moehringer is here as an executive producer—is to remove the very foundational root of what is so engaging and noteworthy about the source material.
Without the writer’s voice, you can often lose the very thing that makes the book worthwhile. And despite its casual, comfortable appeal, Clooney’s The Tender Bar is unable to be anything more than a lesser second-hand recount of the writer’s own emotional upbringing and personal discovery. It’s a modest effort about aspiring greatness that lacks the singular component that makes this story worth telling: the writer’s own declarative words. Without that key ingredient, The Tender Bar is a tale about finding your voice that is sorely lacking its own, resulting in yet another middling directorial effort from Clooney.
Following the formative years of its author, played by Daniel Ranieri as a child and Tye Sheridan during his fledgling early adulthood, Clooney’s The Tender Bar follows the coming-of-age template of the book’s narrative, focusing on how Moehringer’s fatherless upbringing resulted in him forming an impressionable connection with his mentor figure, Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), who is a combination of two people in the author’s life, Steve the bartender and Uncle Charlie, for the sake of a streamlined narrative. In many respects, this is a clear example of how the film sands away some of the nuances and complexities of J.R.’s life story in the interest of producing a more traditional narrative.
As we follow J.R’.s perspective in a turbulent household, owned by his outspoken grandfather (Christopher Lloyd) and his worried grandmother (Sondra James), and watch as he makes his way through a life defined by hard-earned lessons and the stern guidance of drunks, degenerates, and the folks who are caught between them—which includes his caring mother, Dorothy (Lily Rabe)—The Tender Bar opts to trace the writer’s step with no clear desire to dig deep or transverse into the layered difficulties that plagued the author’s life outside of his debautched father’s detachment. It makes the narrative less authentic and certainly less investing, and it’s easy to see why viewers are left wondering why this is a story that warranted an awards season release.
By evading the evocative details and focusing on the sunny, nostalgic love for the time period and the cool, cocksure characters who encompass J.R.’s cinematic life, Clooney’s latest film carries the filmmaker’s signature slickness with an ease of confident charm, but it paints a less enriching portrait of Moehringer’s home life. It’s oddly airy, if appealingly unassuming at times. While it’s easy to be taken by the movie’s refined allure in the first half, much like the historic Dicken’s bar that serves as the centerpoint of this boy-to-man story, it squanders the emotional heft that should drive the thrust of the story’s second chapter. By the third act, we’re left counting clichés and predicting the tropes rather than thoroughly engaging with J.R.’s life-affirming milestones.
It also doesn’t help that Sheridan, who has proven himself to be a fine young actor in a few notable projects, is unable to carry the film as well as Affleck, who effortlessly and reflexively brings the lived-in intelligence, humor, heart, and bravado that should make this period piece function at a higher level. His charisma is well-utilized and his performance is compelling and entertaining in the ways that it’s supposed to be, but as a supporting actor, he must rely on Sheridan to drive the central narrative, and he’s ultimately squandered by a performer who never quite gets a proper handle on this character.
A common problem with memoir adaptations is that the protagonist is left shapeless. Because the writer is shaping their own story on the page, we’re left in their shoes as we read the book, and it’s hard to get an objective perspective. Movie adaptations often result in making the author a bit of a casual everyman, someone who is too easy to latch onto and be endeared by, because a number of their defining traits are left on the page in favor of amplifying the supporting characters around them. While Affleck is diligent and dutiful in his specific role, he isn’t the star. Sheridan is, obsenstively. And Sheridan’s portrayal of Moehringer is too much of a wet blanket to warrant the emotional urgency desperately needed.
Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) gives the script enough crackling wit and spirited warmth—if you may pardon the pun—to get us into the film’s literary vibes. But such pleasures are often fleeting, and the movie’s dramatic tendencies are often flat-footed and uninspired. There’s little about this retelling that gives the movie the dramatic energy found on a single page of Moehringer’s own memoir, let alone any of the personality and wistful depth. It’s a shame because, for all the movie’s championing of the restless spirit, The Tender Bar itself is too often too drunk on its own self-reflexive appeal to do the work to warrant its own importance. It’s too casual in its ambition to be as determined and assertive as the movie’s most influential characters.
There’s a decent bit to celebrate with this Prime Video title, including Martin Ruhe’s handsome cinematography, the production design’s husky, well-vintage period details, and strong supporting performances from Rabe, Lloyd, and Max Casella, alongside Affleck. Similar to Clooney’s last few directorial features, however, there’s only so much competent filmmaking can do if there’s a general disinterest in the story. While he continues to be a cooly confident actor, whenever he opts to make his way onto the screen, Clooney’s direction of late is staggeringly adrift, lacking the fortitude needed to drive his tales of thoughtful, thorny men struggling to make their way in a world that can’t figure out where they belong.
Ultimately, The Tender Bar is filled with pensive reflection and even some sporadic entertainment value, but it’s lacking the voice and vision to give it a firm sense of purpose. On paper, this is a story that earns the right to be told, and it’s a right that isn’t earned by its persistent mediocrity as an adaptation.
The Tender Bar is now available to stream on Prime Video. Watch the trailer here.