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Ben Affleck's sharp performance carries George Clooney's earnest 'The Tender Bar'

In a way, Uncle Charlie is like Affleck's character from "Good Will Hunting" if he dropped less rocks and read more books. A role made for him.
Credit: Amazon Studios

ST. LOUIS — J.R. Moehringer is the kid who wasn't given a great dad at birth, so he found his own at the bar down the street. Named The Dickens for the long row of books by Charles behind the bartender, who had read them all, this was J.R. 's gateway to solace.

But for this young boy in Long Island, Massachusetts, it's not just the building that means the world to him: that would be Uncle Charlie. J.R.'s surrogate male presence that guides him through the trials and tribulations of manhood. It's this bond that powers the heart of George Clooney's latest directorial effort, "The Tender Bar."

Lived-in and edgy with a blue collar feel-good mentality attached to its brain, this adaptation of Moehringer's memoir of the same name (if you juggle up the letters in bartender, you get "The Tender Bar") hits all the right notes. Is it formulaic in parts of its coming-of-age genre representation? Yes, but that's the idea in this particular tale. When there's a voiceover about a scrappy orphaned young boy growing up in a small town, expect some familiar territory and earnest intent.

But Clooney's riff on the material, written by William Monahan, focuses mostly on the relationship between Charlie and J.R., two peas in a pod from the younger years (played by brilliant newcomer Daniel Ranieri) to the older ones (Tye Sheridan). Played by Ben Affleck, Charlie is the epitome of old school masculinity. He's self-taught, witty, charming, and always has at least three punch lines at his disposal. Best of all, he cares about his nephew more than anything.

Affleck plays the heck out of a part that was created precisely for his talents. He's not hardened and silent like his autistic assassin in "The Accountant" or charmingly violent like Doug in "The Town." In a way, Charlie is like Affleck's character from "Good Will Hunting" if he dropped less rocks and read more books. It's a great role that showcases the endlessly likable on screen persona Affleck has perfected over his 20-plus year career.

Credit: Claire Folger/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

Young Ranieri is a great match for Affleck, creating a situation where it seems like the two actors play off each other like they've been friends for years. If this is Daniel's first stab at acting, I can't wait for what comes next. He has the intuitive grace to make you adore him, but also the comic timing to make a certain word land just right. A dream sequence with Ranieri ranks among the best of the film.

Sheridan has been a busy man of late (following "The Card Counter"), but he really delivers as the older J.R., someone still tied to his roots yet staring out at the future like a hungry animal. Betrayed repeatedly by a disappearing act of a father (Max Martini, aka "the Voice"), Sheridan taps soulfully into the wise beyond his years yet already worn down student. Someone who takes his best friends to the neighborhood bar run by his uncle.

Christopher Lloyd follows up his fine work in "Nobody" with a hilarious grandfather role here. Playing the elder patriarch of the family, the man with the home that his grown kids keep returning to with suitcases, Lloyd proves once again he is so much more than Doc Brown from "Back to the Future." Wait for the scene where grandpa dresses up and accompanies his grandson to "Meet The Parents" day at school. He nails it. I'm so glad he came back to play.

Clooney excels here, finding his comfort zone as a storyteller. From the minute we race up to a speeding car blasting classic rock in the opening credits, we are transported to his slice of the past. Surrounded by personality (Lily Rabe as J.R.'s relentless mother!) and conviction, we easily go along for the ride.

Whatever style points "The Tender Bar" loses for originality, it makes up for in emotional resonance. I've watched the film three times and each viewing reveals a new trick, hidden in the first couple inspections.

That's the sign of a great film. One that is rewatchable and carries a distinct tone and feel. Each time I started the movie, it was like a warm blanket was being thrown over me for a couple hours. Cheers to Clooney for dialing it down and pulling a "Good Night, Good Luck" tribute song on us here.

J.R. is the kid who had the opportunity to choose his dad. But for him, it was a recurring role carrier. Sometimes, it was Charlie. Other times, it was patrons from the bar (Michael Braun, Max Casella) who "backed him up," aka paid for a couple of his sodas. Other times, it was grandpa. For about 15 minutes every once in a while, it was "The Voice," aka a deadbeat dad on the radio.

But make no mistake. If there is one reason to see "The Tender Bar" immediately, it's for Affleck's confident work as the uncle every young kid would love to have. You truly believe him in the part, which spans a decade and some change as the film progresses. Paired with 2020's "The Way Back" and his wildly unkempt work in Ridley Scott's "The Last Duel," Affleck is letting the world know he's back and better than ever.

George Clooney's "The Tender Bar" is the kind of movie you go see while Christmas dinner is digesting. It'll make you laugh, cry a little, and remember what it was like to be a kid staring up at the big, wide world.

Stay for the credits, even if they will just make you long for a beach.

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