The Tender Bar is a different kind of movie steeped in the nostalgia of a bygone era defined by cigarette smoke, cast iron friendships, and male-dominated societies. In many respects, it wouldn’t feel out of place in Cameron Crowe’s filmography. The movie, starring Ben Affleck, is essentially a rite of passage piece featuring characters searching for identities. Similar to Almost Famous in its ability to perfectly capture time and place, The Tender Bar is also rich in idiosyncrasy from the outset.
In adapting J.R. Moehringer’s novel, Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan has been sure to inhabit this world with its quota of human frailty. Affleck’s Uncle Charlie runs the eponymous bar in question, holding court over his patrons with an understated air of self-assurance. There is naturalism in Affleck’s performance that lets him disappear into the role and shine.
However, this film is unlikely to garner any awards buzz or podium speeches because portrayals of this nature consciously avoid them. Uncle Charlie is an amalgam of every good role model that people have ever had. Yet, there is a benevolence beneath the foul language and barroom philosophy that actively celebrates an intelligence only gained over time. His cohorts in crime, who spend their days sitting around the bar, hark back to a time when friendships are carved in stone, but the camaraderie of barflies has evolved with time and technology to mean something quite different these days.
Daniel Ranieri, a young actor who carries over forty minutes of this film with no sense of occasion, joins Affleck, crafting a performance opposite veterans Christopher Lloyd and Lily Rabe that many will consider the real pleasure upon repeat viewings. His innate innocence and pre-possession in character effortlessly provide the heart and soul so essential to establishing tone.
This tag-team casting carries through into the latter stages in many ways, as adolescent concerns make way for adult responsibilities. The story shifts seamlessly from one ensemble cast member to another as the passing of time is felt through simple character changes. Other touchstones that share a similar cinematic make-up would include The World According to Garp and Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys. Absentee fathers, dominant role models, and literary aspirations are all featured in adaptations that remain criminally underrated.
As for where this film sits in Clooney’s body of work remains to be seen. From Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to The Ides of March or Good Night, and Good Luck, he has always been a difficult director to pin down. With his producing partner Grant Heslov, the actor-director has always done things of interest using his name as leverage. That aside, audiences have always had certain expectations from George Clooney regarding his output.
As a director, his films behind the camera are often overt in agenda, rich in character, and set out to enlighten. The Tender Bar only deviates by shifting that focus towards family through nostalgic introspection, anchored by the disarming use of a narrator, who admonishes, advises, and informs throughout.
The movie also highlights his skill with ensemble casts. Multiple generations, interweaving time periods, and real-time tracking shots all require a different skill set. Christopher Lloyd clearly revels in his role as the grandfather to an unruly brood, brandishing fierce intellect from an armchair of familial indifference. Max Martini also adds an essential edge to the absent father figure, in opposition to the benevolent Uncle Charlie. Defined through his frustration and indifference, it is a measure of the performance that Max Martini can still keep audiences on his side.
For many, The Tender Bar will be a film people watch for very personal reasons that have very little to do with culture, creed, or cadence. It will share the company of movies that have come to shape childhoods, mold aspirations, and remain evergreen because they struck a chord. One that resonates across generations, recalling a time of innocence and self-discovery that can get lost as people stumble into adulthood.
That is why age and the passing of time will only ever improve The Tender Bar in years to come. By capturing that moment and convincingly conveying it on screen, George Clooney has created a perennial movie experience, one people would be foolish to miss.