Director George Clooney's coming-of-age drama is conventional but Ben Affleck shines on the sidelines.

The Tender Bar


Ben Affleck is just the right amount of relaxed in The Tender Bar, a big deal for him, like watching a unicorn trot into the room. Over the years, he's been a Batman who was too dour, a rom-com lead who was too uptight, or a savior of the world in movies like Armageddon and The Sum of All Fears for which he was too glib. Meanwhile, the looming distraction of his private life (so many furious-looking Starbucks runs) didn't help.

But in director George Clooney's easygoing drama, based on J. R. Moehringer's 2005 memoir about becoming a journalist (he'd eventually win a Pulitzer for it), Affleck is just a guy who owns a bar. It's the early 1970s on Long Island, which means being cool meant tooling around in a Cadillac convertible. Affleck's Uncle Charlie definitely does that; mainly, though, he's content to stand behind the handsome wooden bar of his Manhasset joint, the Dickens, kibbitzing with customers: an affable, beer-slinging anchor amid pinwheeling lives.

As you can probably guess, any character called Uncle Charlie isn't going to be the main one. That's a shame in this case: The Tender Bar concerns itself with the trajectory of young J.R., first as a lonely 11-year-old (Daniel Ranieri) relocating with his broke, divorced mom (Lily Rabe) to her family home, then as a collegian and young man (Tye Sheridan) making his way in the wilds of professional writing. The beards and sweaters change over the years but the path will be familiar to anyone who's seen Almost Famous and recalls Philip Seymour Hoffman's cranky, avuncular Lester Bangs, a mentor who's immediately more captivating than anyone else on screen.

You can learn a lot in a bar, especially if you commit to being an observer. When The Tender Bar is content to be that movie, it glints beautifully. The walls are booklined: Charlie is no lunkhead but an avid reader. He's got pearls of wisdom small and large for J.D. — an informal education in the "male sciences," he calls it — and Affleck is so loosely charming, you sense J.D. is gaining something more than life lessons, but an awareness of how precious it is to have a true character in your life, an oddball who takes an interest in you. These scenes are infinitely better than the climactic ones, bland and long telegraphed: encounters with a girlfriend's snobby parents, or the re-emergence of the film's one bad guy, true to form.

Clooney, a steady hand, should have called for a script polish. (The adapting screenwriter, The Departed's William Monahan, is best during his one-on-ones.) Affleck and Clooney make sense as collaborators; both of them became directors to get out of the way of their public images. Hopefully, the next time they decide to work together, they'll lean even further into the intimacies of a setting like the Dickens, a universe unto itself. B-

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