The Conservative Critic
Oscar Watch: Is Tender Bar Affleck’s Big Break?
It is well known that Ben Affleck has been on the Oscar campaign trail for his most recent role in the Amazon Prime produced The Tender Bar which also happens to be directed by another famous actor, George Clooney. Clooney’s direction has been received by critics in the past with extremely mixed reviews and his comeback with The Tender Bar sets the stage for two major projects he has in the queue.
Affleck has had a lot of success at the Oscars with his writing and direction but has never clinched a nomination for his acting. On the flip side, Clooney has been broadly nominated and even won an Oscar for his acting but has never been nominated for his directing. Is The Tender Bar going to even the score for these men?
The Conservative Critic asks: Is it entertaining? Does it have intellectual/artistic value? And finally: Is it liberal propaganda?
The Conservative Critic Oscar Watch Meter Check: The Tender Bar
Overall Rating: Pretty Okay
The Tender Bar isn’t bad per say but it isn’t good either. The story itself is very derivative and extremely well explored by a lot of other, much better, works and while some of the acting was pretty good it definitely wasn’t enough to overcome the almost mundane nature of the story. While Clooney’s voice is very strong in the direction, he never musters the courage to do something extraordinary. His use of narration is bordering on criminal and he leans heavily on medium and close up camera shots which makes the whole thing seem sort of claustrophobic. Is that intentional? I’m not sure and that’s a problem.
That being said there is something cozy about what Clooney produced which redeems it quite a bit and there is a slight right lean to the material making it overall a pretty okay effort which is definitely not winning best picture at the Oscars despite its best efforts.
Is it entertaining?
Unfortunately, there is simply nothing compelling enough about The Tender Bar to hold the viewer’s attention. As a character-driven coming-of-age, it already is at a disadvantage in terms of the nature of format and the ability for a viewer to care or be engaged. However, unlike the several other films in the same genre competing on the Oscar circuit this year (such as the phenomenal Coda), The Tender Bar seems to make no attempt at new ground and doesn’t even really allow its characters to be explored deeply enough to invest in them as a viewer. It’s a complete snooze. Do not recommend it for entertainment value.
Does it have intellectual/artistic value?
Rating: Not breaking any ground
The Tender Bar would have been something special in perhaps 1980 when the exploration of fathers, sons, and becoming a man was a new idea in film and when the sensitivity of the masculine identity was not fully flushed in the film and TV medium. In 2022, a movie about a young boy with a single mom and a bad dad who has an uncle that takes him under his wing is simply not a film worth making unless you can really bring it somewhere special. Clooney does not manage to make it anything close to special. The whole thing feels extremely dusty and very trite.
Further, the choice to have the film narrated is surprising and also a major mistake. The narration really doubles down on the schmaltz factor and breaks one of the cardinal rules of film which is that: if you have to explain the plot to the viewer, you did it wrong. A personal preference of mine is that narration and fourth wall breaks are left to comedies where the technique can be used to create humorous tension between reality and the inner self. I can think of maybe two dramatic films that successfully included narration (Shawshank Redemption and Fight Club but the latter is so revolutionary it’s hard to even count it). It blows my mind that Clooney would make this choice as a veteran of film.
The acting which has been so trumpeted on the Oscar circuit was only fine. Ben Affleck is an east coast barman. The way he does it feels almost like a caricature and feels very done before. It actually feels very Clooney which is maybe its biggest compliment because clearly, Affleck does take direction.
The young actor, Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One, Mud), is extremely talented in the lead role as the boy coming of age and facing conflict with his father while falling in love and going to school. He does a good job. There’s nothing to pick at, it just simply isn’t enough.
The unsung performance of the film is actually that of legend, Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) who plays the pseudo humorous role of an aging grandfather who intermittently provides some outlandish and zany interjections. If the other characters didn’t point out how crazy he was constantly, the character might have actually worked.
What tips the film’s quality from “fine” to barely good are two factors: one is how cozy the film is. It’s the sherpa sweater of emotional dramas. I imagine the book which provided the source material for the film was an extremely pleasant rainy day read and that sense of comfort does translate which isn’t very easy to do in a film where a kid hates his dad.
Additionally, more than any other film Clooney has directed, The Tender Bar, had his touches all over it. It really felt like Clooney somehow. And while he made some disastrous choices, it served as a good sample of what Clooney could really do with some thoughtful editing and feedback. There was a signature quality about it that only the greats really accomplish. For example, any filmy (and actually most casual viewers even if they didn’t know how to name it) knows a Sofia Copolla or Wes Anderson or Martin Scorcese or Cohen film on sight. This development of signature style is a credit to Clooney and to the film regardless of its issues.
Is it liberal propaganda?
Rating: Tips right
The film celebrates the idea that self-educated, working-class, individuals are just as or more high-quality members of society than the elitists and the upper middles. The heroes of the film are well-read barmen and the villains are Harvard-educated teachers. This is a very conservative value. It also celebrates classic cars which are allegedly “bad for the environment.”
The film probably should have received an even higher conservative rating and would have if George Clooney wasn’t still who he is. Can’t quite bring myself to go full right-wing on the rating for his film.