Ever since he was let out of the golden Batman cage, Ben Affleck has been on something a roll. From elevating otherwise merely ok films like The Way Back to adding heaps of extra joy to already good ones (see: The Last Duel) to his well-publicised and well-received romantic revival with J-Lo, he’s a man in form. Such good form, in fact, that even a starring role in a dull and lazy film like The Tender Bar can’t dim his light. He’s fantastic here, far and away the best thing George Clooney’s latest directorial disappointment has to offer, his performance deserving of a far better film in which to house it.
Affleck plays Charlie, owner of a popular locals’ bar and uncle to JR Moehringer (Daniel Ranieri as a kid, Tye Sheridan as a teen and young man), upon whose memoir William Monahan’s screenplay is based. He brings a real rockstar energy to all his scenes, which add a sorely-needed pep to a story that is mostly just bland. JR is growing up in the multi-generational house owned by his grandfather (Christopher Lloyd) after another job falls through for his long-suffering mum (Lily Rabe), listening to his absent dad’s radio show and mostly being raised by Uncle Charlie, his book collection, and the jolly regulars at Charlie’s bar.
Eventually, JR’s story will lead him to Yale university and his first, doomed, romance, but an absolute ton of important story and character work happens off screen before we’re simply told about it in the most direct, uninteresting way possible, either through a character simply stating it or the very intrusive narration from Ron Livingston as the adult JR. Monahan’s script is undisguisably bad whenever it’s not directly focused on Affleck’s Charlie, and Clooney’s direction is shaky too.
He creates a fun, warm atmosphere in the bar, but is really overreliant on some distracting visual tics elsewhere. Clooney’s last film behind the camera was last year’s Midnight Sky, an apocalyptic sci-fi, and that was far more calm and collected than this, while the performance from young Ranieri feels under-directed, just delivering lines to camera with little in the way of feeling or excitement. A lot of the adult supporting cast are equally flat – with the exception of Charlie, you’ll find yourself struggling to remember anyone’s traits or lines more than half an hour after the credits roll.
Set in 1973 and 1986, The Tender Bar manages an expensive-sounding period-appropriate soundtrack, but never really transports you to the eras. For a film based on a memoir, there’s very little here that is truly lived in or tactile, a memory that goes by in a haze without evoking any real feeling. The comedy falls flat too, most of the lines having the cadence of set-up and punchline, but rarely actually delivering any jokes. It’s such a shame for Affleck – put this performance in a better film and it’s a shoo-in for awards attention but, as it stands, it’s just a curiously bright part of a very dull whole.