For the first 10 or so minutes of the movie, Stan has no dialogue, rendering him something of a cipher: Is this handsome fellow a little dim or just not a talker? Accordingly, we transfer our interest to the more personable supporting players. Dafoe is deliciously slimy, while Collette and Strathairn show humanity and humor as mentalists who practice within ethical bounds.In an early scene in The Tender Bar, the young protagonist J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) sits on a stool at the Dickens, the pub where his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) works, and stares wide-eyed at the numerous books stacked on the shelves. There are as many novels in this place as there are bottles of liquor to drink, and Charlie is happy to encourage J.R.’s interest in them.
Stan is a different breed. By the time he meets Lilith, we know what he wants from life — “dough,” he says — but we still don’t know what really drives him. Lilith herself seems intent on finding out; she strikes a deal that puts the reluctant Stan on her office couch. Cooper and Blanchett have a creepy chemistry, and Stan’s unorthodox therapy session is the movie’s most gripping scene.From that scene on, if not sooner, it’s clear what kind of movie The Tender Bar is going to be: a sweet, pat, unchallenging coming-of-age story that resembles a lot of coming-of-age stories you’ve seen before, but with less depth. Adapted from J.R. Moehringer’s memoir by screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) and directed by George Clooney, the movie, which opens in theaters nationwide Wednesday, follows J.R.’s evolution from childhood into his college years, when he’s played by Tye Sheridan. But really, this story is about the absence of a paternal figure in J.R.’s life and how he fills that hole by forming a warm, slightly cockeyed bond with his Uncle Charlie.
Throughout, Nightmare Alley is a feast for the eyes, with top-notch costuming and production design supporting del Toro’s already sumptuous visuals. The lurid crimsons and greens of the carnival’s sideshow have the viscerality of an oil painting. The aforementioned therapy scene makes use of falling snow and wafting cigarette smoke to create a poignant sense of unreality. Every outfit Lilith wears is a triumph and a provocation.The problem with The Tender Bar is that it does not fully realize that exploring the nuances of that relationship is the film’s entire reason for being. Instead of zooming in extra-tight on J.R. and Charlie (the film’s most magnetic character, thanks to Affleck) and the code of masculinity that uncle passes on to nephew, The Tender Bar sprawls out, particularly in the second half when the narrative shifts to J.R.’s experiences as a student at Yale and an adult post-graduation. Increasingly one gets the sense that the film is checking off plotline boxes from the book — here’s the part where J.R. falls for a fellow student (Briana Middleton), and here’s the bit where he gets an entry-level job at the New York Times, and here are the moments when he deals with illness in his family. Too much is skimmed over rather than dug into deeply.