Review: George Clooney pours a third shot for Ben Affleck’s career in ‘The Tender Bar’ | WTOP News

“The Tender Bar” just earned Ben Affleck a deserved SAG Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but this isn’t Oscar bait that trades audience connection for acclaim.

WTOP’s Jason Fraley reviews ‘The Tender Bar’

“The Tender Bar” just earned Ben Affleck a deserved SAG Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but this isn’t Oscar bait that trades audience connection for acclaim.

The Amazon coming-of-age flick is truly heartfelt, providing a renaissance for Affleck in George Clooney’s best directorial effort since “Good Night and Good Luck” (2005).

Based on the 2005 memoir by J. R. Moehringer, the film follows 9-year-old JR Maguire growing up in 1970s Long Island. His single mother Dorothy moves him back in with his grandparents where he bonds with his Uncle Charlie, who owns a local bar, The Dickens.

At age 25, Tye Sheridan gives his most mature performance in a career launched by Terence Malick’s lyrical masterpiece “The Tree of Life” (2011) and Jeff Nichols’ Twain-esque “Mud” (2012). He can carry blockbuster IP like comic-books (“X-Men: Apocalypse”) and video games (“Ready Player One”) or original Indies like “The Card Counter” (2021).

He may grow up to be Affleck, who epitomizes America’s quest to build up celebrities and tear them down. How else do you explain him winning an Oscar for co-writing “Good Will Hunting” (1997), tanking with “Gigli” (2003), making an Oscar-winning comeback directing “Argo” (2012), then tanking again with personal tabloid drama and sad Batman memes?

“The Tender Bar” joins “The Way Back” (2020) and “The Last Duel” (2021) to complete his second Hollywood rehabilitation for a promising third chapter to his career. It will make you a believer again in Affleck’s ability to disappear into a role, getting back to his “Good Will Hunting” roots but now as the Robin Williams mentor telling young JR, “It’s not your fault.”

Affleck’s father-figure camaraderie with child star Daniel Ranieri is heartwarming, saying, “Two rules: I’m never going to let you win and I’m always going to tell you the truth.” He shows him the ropes of “the male sciences,” saying, “Don’t ever hit a woman, even if she stabs you with scissors,” and, “If you read enough [books], you could become a writer.”

His Uncle Charlie is the opposite of Joseph Cotten in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), healing a broken family rather than exploding it. The divisive force here is JR’s alcoholic absent father, played by Max Martini (“13 Hours”) as a distant voice on the radio, routinely switched off by his resilient mother in a great role by Lily Rabe (“The Undoing”).

Likewise, Christopher Lloyd (“Back to the Future”) is a lovable grandpa, hilariously denying his La-Z-Boy flatulence, while delivering heartwarming moments: “Don’t tell anyone I’m a good grandfather or everybody will want one.” This dashboard conversation rivals Richard Gant in TV’s “The Wonder Years” (2021) and even Ciarán Hinds in “Belfast” (2021).

The lovingly dysfunctional family is captured in rare detail by Clooney, staging shots with family members at the dinner table in the foreground while others appear through a “frame within a frame” in the kitchen background. The result is a portrait of a working-class family that has it all, even if society thinks they don’t. It’s up to us, and JR, to appreciate it.

His epiphany comes when visiting the snooty parents of his wealthy college crush Sidney (Briana Middleton), who keeps him at arm’s length as her sidepiece. Rather than a cliché where his fear of abandonment makes him afraid to commit, the screenplay shows him desperate to stay with her even though she mistreats him — just like his absent father.

It’s the deftest touch by screenwriter William Monahan, who won an Oscar adapting the script for “The Departed” (2006). His script never drags, intercutting the coming-of-age story of Young JR (Ranieri) with the parallel action of Adult JR (Sheridan) riding a train to an Ivy League future that could mean law school or bylines in The New York Times.

By the end, when Affleck sends Sheridan on his way with a grin and a quip, “Don’t say I never got you nothing,” you’ll feel the same heartwarming possibility like you did when Affleck shoved Matt Damon on the road to discover himself, driving toward the horizon.

Is “The Tender Bar” the most original cocktail you’ve ever tasted? Probably not, but it is the warmest of human comforts like sitting down on your favorite stool at your favorite bar with your favorite regulars to order your favorite drink from your favorite bartender. Fortunately, if you already have an Amazon Prime subscription, this one’s on the house.

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Review: George Clooney pours a third shot for Ben Affleck’s career in ‘The Tender Bar’ | WTOP News

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