Five years ago, I spoke to George Clooney at the Toronto International Film Festival about his latest directorial endeavor, Suburb, a strange hybrid of black comedy and social satire that lack to connect with reviews. At that time, Clooney had over 30 years of an acting career which had seen him star in the hit TV series. emergency, playing Batman, winning an Oscar and working with directors such as Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers and Alfonso Cuarón, in addition to directing his own films. He had also co-founded a enormously successful tequila company. While discussing SuburbClooney’s attitude was simple: if he’s directing or appearing in a project these days, he’s doing it purely out of a passion for the material.
“Look, I got paid $ 50,000 to write, produce, and direct this movie over a two-year period, and I don’t have a back-end. I don’t do these things for money anymore, ”he said. “I sold a fucking tequila company, it’s going to be okay. So that puts me in the position I’m going If we’re going to do this and I’m going to spend two years working every day, then this should be something that I’m looking forward to doing. “
Clooney’s outlook is enviable, and I continue to take that into account in light of his recent career choices. After Suburb, in 2019 he co-directed and appeared in an adaptation of Catch-22 for Hulu (who got solid reviews while missing out on major Emmy nominations), then in 2020 he directed and starred in the sci-fi parable Midnight sky for Netflix (which got a more discreet reception). His latest film, The tender bar, is similar to these two projects in that it is based on a book (in this case, a memoir by JR Moehringer), it was designed for a streaming company (this time, Amazon), and it is the sort of thing that Hollywood doesn’t do as much more – a high-end drama aimed squarely at adults.
The tender bar is also Clooney’s best movie in years, though that’s a bit by default; Suburb was an ambitious train wreck, Midnight sky such a beautiful nap. Although Clooney’s first two films as a director (the biopic Confessions of a dangerous mind and the historical drama Good night and good luck) are excellent, anything he has done since has not worked for me. Its disinterest in pursuing purely commercial projects is admirable; his films date back to a time when studios focused on more than just producing action-packed blockbusters. Yet despite their intriguing sources, many films end up being pretty hollow tributes.
Beyond what I already mentioned, Clooney did Battleships, a wacky football comedy from the 1920s that attempted to evoke Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks; The Ides of March, a political thriller told in the tradition of the paranoid classics of the 60s and 70s; and Monuments Men, a celebrity WWII film straight out of Hollywood’s golden age. These are all incredibly flawed works, but they’re also chock-full of top performers, were produced with proper budgets, and were widely marketed and released by their studios. These mentions are a testament to Clooney’s influence – in either case, however, the end product was underwhelming and boring.
Ironically, The tender bar succeeds in part because of his lack of ambition. Where his other recent films get lost in an intense and complex plot, The tender bar is a dating film based on the laid-back performances of a talented ensemble. The screenplay, by William Monahan, loosely brings together Moehringer’s memories of his days as a Long Island kid (played by Tye Sheridan). Abandoned by his dad, he spent much of his adolescence in a bar run by his charming uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck). Clooney’s film oscillates between the childhood of the protagonist at the bar and his struggles to become a journalist as an adult. The material with Uncle Charlie is the most entertaining, helped by a terrifying and lived-in performance from Affleck.
While I enjoyed the uncluttered plot, it still doesn’t capture the passionate energy of Clooney’s early projects. Moehringer’s journey to success and independence doesn’t find a compelling hook beyond the hangouts, and so the film is almost overwhelmingly sweet. The acting is good, while the story doesn’t really hold up. The same goes for many Clooney projects – unsurprisingly, he’s attentive to the intricacies of an actor’s performance, but the scripts he chose recently have run out of narrative propulsion.
Clooney himself may have realized this. After focusing on directing in recent years, he landed leading roles in two major projects. Ol Parker’s release slated for fall Ticket to paradise, in which he and Julia Roberts play former lovers joining forces to help their daughter. It is also attached to a thriller from director Jon Watts (who directed the last Spider Man films) which will reunite him with his Eleven from the ocean co-starring Brad Pitt; Apple recently won a fierce bidding war for rights. Both sound like classic Hollywood projects more in the mold of what made Clooney a star in the first place; more importantly, his main role for each will be in front of the camera. Clooney’s enthusiasm for directing niche films to screens is certainly endearing, but he might be in the best position to channel his prestige as an actor, rather than a director, in the future.