George Clooney has long been a force for good in movies and public life – but what a bafflingly bland, indulgent, gritless oyster of a film he’s directed here. It is a boy’s own coming-of-age story without any believable growing pains, or pains of any sort, and is based on the bestselling memoir by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist JR Moehringer – which has had a whole lot of famous men asking him to ghostwrite their autobiographies, including our own Prince Harry.
The Tender Bar is about a kid growing up poor on Long Island with a mostly absent, abusive dad, a toughly determined mom, and getting a rough-and-ready literary education hanging out in the local bar run by his book-mad uncle, and finally getting a scholarship to Yale in the Class of 86. Ben Affleck plays the boozy bibliophile Uncle Charlie in whose pub, the Dickens, he nurses a literary spark in JR, played as a little boy by newcomer Daniel Ranieri and as a grownup by Tye Sheridan. Lily Rabe does a decent job as JR’s hardworking mom who has to bring her son back to her childhood home when her husband runs out on them; Christopher Lloyd is the cranky, ornery old grandpa in whose house all these deadbeats have ended up, and Max Martini is plausibly threatening as JR’s errant dad, a disc jockey called “The Voice” whose gravelly tones the boy yearningly listens out for on the radio.
Affleck and Martini provide the film’s single weirdest scene: Charlie grumpily demands the 30 bucks The Voice owes him, and The Voice gives him what appears to be a horrible beating, behind Charlie’s car in long-shot where the camera can’t or won’t see it. This is presented to us as just another sad tableau from JR’s tough upbringing, with no consequences. We don’t see Charlie covered in cuts and bandages. And we never hear JR, in one of his many soupy-sonorous voiceovers, talk about how shocking this must surely have been.
Another part of the film that is strangely without plausible emotional content is JR’s relationship with wealthy fellow student, Sidney (Briana Middleton), who has wild sex with him and finally breaks his heart by marrying someone else. There is a truly odd scene when JR insults Sidney’s mother over their breakfast table, presumably because of her snobbish attitude to JR’s mom. Is it supposed to be tense? Embarrassing? Funny? It just feels numb.
And on hearing that he’s planning on being a writer, people keep coyly telling JR that “memoirs” are where it’s at in publishing. Maybe; Moehringer didn’t get round to publishing his until 2005. This doesn’t feel like real memory at all: just a collection of flavourless picturesque scenes.
• The Tender Bar is released on 17 December in cinemas, and on 7 January on Amazon Prime Video.