Movie Review: The Tender Bar
George Clooney directs a competent memoir, but the subject just isn't that interesting.
If biopics have a problem, adaptations of memoirs are an almost hopeless case.
There are good, even very good, big-screen biopics, and some viewers are fond of the genre (though I’d defy anyone to name a biopic they’ve watched time and again). Very few escape an oft-fatal structural flaw, however: The beats of a life, even a very interesting one, do not make for a natural cinematic story.
Such is the case with biopics about famous people. Imagine one without a particularly interesting subject.
Our subject here, writer J. R. Moehringer, is skilled and successful — he’s won a Pulitzer — and he no doubt vividly illustrated his Long island upbringing in his memoir, “The Tender Bar.” While a good writer can make their life vivid and compelling on the page, though, turning a fairly unremarkable lived experience into a movie leads only to one question: Why do I care about this guy?
“A doctor at school says I have no identity,” Moehringer remarks early in the proceedings. The school psychiatrist in question is painted as a fool. Yet throughout the film, Moehringer seems to do nothing so much as wander around in search of some answer as to who he is; it is a long series of older people telling the protagonist about life.
Moehringer, played as a child by Daniel Ranieri and as a young man by Tye Sheridan, is a pleasant enough guy. He’s a bright kid, works hard in school and fulfills the dream presented to him by his mother (Lily Rabe), that of attending Yale. In his childhood, he hangs around with his wisdom-dispatching Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck); as a college student, he dotes on a fellow student, Sidney (Briana Middleton), who only occasionally shows any interest in him.
The nominal thrust of “The Tender Bar” is Moehringer’s quest to understand his absent father (Max Martini), a ne’er-do-well radio DJ. By the time the aspiring writer is old enough to toy with memoir writing — yes, this is a memoir about the writing of itself — Uncle Charlie even identifies an encounter with dad as a likely culmination of the story. While those scenes are effective, they don’t feel substantive; they’re just some events that occur in Moehringer’s mostly uneventful coming-of-age, not that different from everything else in the film.
“The Tender Bar” is made competently enough. George Clooney directs the film like Scorsese on a slow day; side characters drift in and out, threads are inspected briefly and then discarded. To be fair, that is how life works; it’s appropriate for a memoir.
Memoir, though, is rarely appropriate for cinema — as “The Tender Bar” accidentally illustrates.
My Rating: 5/10
“The Tender Bar” begins streaming on Amazon Prime Jan. 7.