Some movie adaptations absolutely do not have to be made, and “The Tender Bar” is certainly one of them. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t redeem itself by being well-made or enjoyable to watch, either.
Directed by George Clooney and based on the memoir of the same name by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and journalist J.R. Moehringer, “The Tender Bar” eliminates the bulk of what makes the memoir so great — Moehringer’s writing itself — and substitutes it with excessive exposition, weak dialogue and poorly paced storytelling. The adaptation, both in its form and quality, takes away the magic of the original work; not only does the film add nothing to the memoir it is based on, but it could potentially degrade the story’s legacy as well.
“The Tender Bar” follows the life of writer J.R. Moehringer (Tye Sheridan) from childhood to shortly after his graduation from Yale University. Raised by a single mother in his grandfather’s home in Long Island, Moehringer grows up amid family tensions fueled by poverty and a tumultuous relationship with his absentee father (Max Martini). As he gets older, Moehringer is determined to fulfill his mother’s (Lily Rabe) wish for him to attend Yale University, sets his mind on becoming a writer and bonds with his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) and Charlie’s patrons at a local bar.
Ironically, one of the film’s weakest components is the writing. Dialogue throughout feels incohesive and unnatural, particularly in the scenes with young Moehringer (Daniel Ranieri), of which there are several — young J.R. simply doesn’t sound like a child. Later on, the poor writing presents a multitude of other problems. Although there are a handful of decently written scenes and characters (most of Ben Affleck’s lines are emotionally satisfying), most are hard to sympathize with. We simply do not get to know them well enough, and dialogue serves more to move the story forward than diving deeper into the characters or their desires and motivations.
The film’s excessive use of voice-over is also one of its most infuriating characteristics; it is doing itself a big disservice by force-feeding audiences exposition and information about characters’ feelings. “The Tender Bar” would be much more effective if more of its storytelling were left up to dialogue and acting. The overuse of explanatory voice-over comes off as a crutch — an obvious sign of the screenplay’s lack of confidence. At worst, it is also a cover-up for Clooney’s subpar directing, and at best, stifles opportunities for decent directing and creative choices to shine through.
“The Tender Bar” also shifts focus far too many times. The film constantly directs the audience’s attention back and forth, first toward Moehringer’s rocky relationship with his father, then to his various relationships with other characters (including one of the most frustrating on-screen romances of recent memory), and a thread about a career at the New York Times. There isn’t enough time devoted to any one of these storylines, making each new installment in their progressions forgettable and bland. It’s nearly impossible to identify a single main, underlying conflict, as the film unpacks way too much and never finds a way to piece its story together by the end.
The acting in “The Tender Bar” is a mixed bag, but overall quite mediocre. Sheridan does a good enough job as Moehringer, but isn’t very exciting to watch and doesn’t do much to make his character particularly likable. Rabe gives a slightly better performance as his stressed but well-intentioned mother, but the biggest — perhaps only — redeeming factor is Affleck’s performance as Uncle Charlie. Writing and acting line up well only in the character of Uncle Charlie, and Affleck disappears into this role; Charlie is sardonic, intelligent, extraordinarily likeable and the father figure Moehringer needed all along.
Unfortunately, the entire film can be summed up with one word: weak. With the appeal of its original story poured down the sink, “The Tender Bar” is obviously watered down.