Producers: Grant Heslov, George Clooney and Ted Hope   Director: George Clooney   Screenplay: William Monaghan   Cast: Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, Daniel Ranieri, Max Martini, Rhenzy Feliz, Briana Middleton, Max Casella, Sondra James, Michael Braun, Matthew Delamater, Bill Meleady, Kate Avallone, Danielle Ranieri, Mark Boyett, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Shannon Collis and Ivan Leung   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B-

George Clooney’s adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir is meandering, misshapen and often mawkish—but also likably understated and intermittently touching.  It captures the tenderness of the title remarkably well.

The titular bar is a Long Island establishment run by J.R.’s uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck—he’s the bar-tender, see), who becomes a surrogate father to the boy (Daniel Ranieri) when J.R. and his financially-strapped mother (Lily Rabe) are forced to move from the city back to the home of her parents (Christopher Lloyd and Sondra James).  Charlie acts as a world-wise advisor to the kid, who deeply feels the absence of his father (Max Martini), a self-centered D.J. known as The Voice, who’s accustomed to letting J.R. down when he makes arrangements to pick him up for an outing and is curt and boorish when he does show up.  By contrast self-taught Charlie, in his laid-back fashion, encourages him to excel and offers him his well-stocked library—the bar’s named after Dickens—to read.  With added support from his crusty granddad, who even spruces himself up to attend father’s day at the kid’s school, J.R. does well enough to earn a scholarship at Yale, though he also has the common touch, fraternizing with Charlie’s regulars (Michael Braun, Matthew Delamater and Max Casella), who serve as low-rent kibitzers. 

At Yale J.R., now played by Tye Sheridan, gains friends in Jimmy (Ivan Leung) and Wesley (Rhenzy Feliz), but he repairs home regularly, sometimes with one or another of them in tow, to breathe the atmosphere of his grandparents’ house, always crammed with relatives staying there for varying terms, and Charlie’s bar.  His studies go well, but take second place to his infatuation with Sidney (Briana Middleton), an attractive coed he meets at a party and immediately walks home.  He becomes intensely serious, even borderline obsessive, about her, but she’s less committed from the start, and when she invites him to meet her parents (Mark Boyett and Quincy Taylor Bernstine), their reaction to him is markedly unenthusiastic.  His stint after graduation at the New York Times also ends in disappointment.  No wonder his alcohol intake increases, bringing an offhanded warning from Charlie, who knows the score about such things.

And overhanging everything is J.R.’s perpetual feeling of abandonment by his father and a desire to reconnect with him.  There’s finally a meeting late in the film that makes him realize what a louse The Voice is, and leads him to treat the guy as he deserves. 

That episode cements the film’s basic message about family being those who offer affection and attention during the rough patches—his mother, grandparents and especially Charlie, who nonchalantly takes over paternal responsibilities when the boy’s biological father ignores them.  Affleck gives a nicely textured performance in the role, putting across the uncle’s enormous influence on the boy’s life without the exaggeration less assured actors might have brought to it.  It helps enormously that the rapport between him and young Ranieri—a genuine find—is so strong.  The bond they develop is comparable to the one Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman achieve in another recent film, “C’mon, C’mon,” and it’s a pleasure to watch.  Rabe and Lloyd add to the mix with effective if less subtle turns.

It has to be admitted, though, that “The Tender Bar” is considerably less ingratiating when it moves from Long Island to New Haven.  Sheridan is a solid young actor, but here not a terribly interesting one.  His college-age J.R. is a pretty bland fellow, and his broken-hearted pining over Sidney, as pleasant as Middleton is, never builds the sense of romantic longing it’s meant to have.  His stint at the Times is also played without much intensity.  You’ll find yourself thinking that other young protagonists have had things a lot worse. 

Sheridan does deliver, however, in his final scenes with Martini, which carry dramatic punch in conveying J.R.’s recognition that his longing for a relationship with his father has been an impediment to happiness.

Clooney gets first-rate work from his technical crew—the production design by Kalina Ivanov and Jenny Eagen’s costumes attend to the seventies period detail with overdoing it, and Dara Taylor’s score, plus the occasional pop tune, are supportive of the visuals.  Martin Ruhe’s unfussy cinematography makes good use of the locations, and editor Tanya Swerling deals reasonably well with the back-and-forth chronological shifts Monaghan and Clooney have chosen to make.  But the decision to include narration delivered by an older J.R. (Ron Livingston) does not prove an especially happy one.

“The Tender Bar” is not without flaws, but this heartfelt tale of a boy coming of age in the embrace of a loving extended family is one of Clooney’s more engaging directorial efforts.