BFI London Film Festival 2021 Review – The Tender Bar (2021)

Easily one of the loveliest, smartest and effortlessly cool people put on this Earth to entertain, George Clooney is one of the few megastars left that draws huge crowds wherever he goes. Wait, no, sorry, that’s his amazing wife, she is who they really come for. With the aftermath of his experiences as Batman 24 years ago (woo, next year we can have a Batman & Robin party!) Clooney has an old-school star grace about him, able to walk into a room and cause a hush to flow across it with all mesmerised by him and, whether successful or not, that charm always flows through his films but his latest, based on the best-selling memoir, is perhaps the closest to the great man himself.

Set in and around Long Island and New York, The Tender Bar tells of young JR (Tik-Tok famous Daniel Ranieri, Tye Sheridan in his teenage years) and his mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe) who have been forced to move back to her parents home alongside her brother, Charlie (Ben Affleck) who becomes his father-figure in the wake of his real dad (Max Martini) abandoning them. Through Charlie’s firm but funny lessons on “The Male Sciences”, mainly taking place at his bar Dickens, JR sets his heart on becoming a writer and when he’s accepted to Yale years later, he sets off for New York to try to navigate his own “Odyssey”, the major works that encompass his teenage life.

Wanting to find something slightly less expansive but no less challenging, Clooney swaps ideas on space, time and the end of the world for one closer to himself and his life before fame with a coming-of-age tale that is as smart and forthright as it is brilliantly funny. Tinged with a shade of sarcasm and playful wit reminiscent of Billy Wilder or Howard Hawks (no doubt big influences on Clooney the actor and director) this is his most personal work and it shows as his almost two-decade odyssey to obtain the rights to J.R. Moehringer’s book bears plentiful fruit. Drawing on his own experiences as well as the writer’s, Clooney creates a wonderfully eccentric yet touching corner of 1970s/1980s Long Island suburbia full of rich and wonderful characters that help enthrall, enlighten and enrich the film whilst its superb soundtrack of classic hits from the era accentuate its already sophisticated aura.

The Vodka Martini of the film though is its extraordinary cast with all of the main players producing some superb turns – what a everlasting joy it is to see Christopher Lloyd on screen and in a dashing suit – but those produced by both Ben Affleck and Lily Rabe elevate the film into “awards season” chatter even more. While he hasn’t always quite found the right roles in his checkered career (for every Daredevil there’s a Batman, for every Argo there’s a Gigli), under Clooney’s guidance, he produces his best work yet: stoic, thoughtful and effortless, he has never been better. Rabe, meanwhile, exudes grace and warmth as JR’S resilient mother and she too will not be forgotten in a hurry, in fact it’s one of this year’s finest supporting turns so far.

Whatever you might think of Clooney the actor or the filmmaker one thing is for sure: The Tender Bar is not just his most personal and heartfelt film but it’s a striking, stark example of the phenomenal filmmaker that lies beneath his effortless exterior. We just hope he surfaces more often.

★★★★


Drama, Comedy | USA, 2021| Cert. TBC | Dir: George Clooney | Ben Affleck, Lily Rabe, Tye Sheridan, Christopher Lloyd, Max Martini, Briana Middleton, Daniel Ranieri