Five years ago, I talked to George Clooney at the Toronto International Film Festival about his latest directorial effort, Suburbicon, a strange hybrid of black comedy and social satire that failed to connect with critics. At that time, Clooney was more than 30 years into an acting career that had seen him star on the hit TV show ER, play Batman, win an Oscar, and work with directors such as Steven Soderbergh, the Coen Brothers, and Alfonso Cuarón, on top of making his own films. He’d also co-founded an enormously successful tequila company. In discussing Suburbicon, Clooney’s attitude was simple: If he directs or appears in a project these days, he’s doing so purely out of his own passion for the material.
“Look, I got paid $50,000 to write, produce, and direct this film over a two-year period of time, and I have no back end. I don’t do these things for money anymore,” he said. “I sold a fucking tequila company, I’ll be fine. So it puts me in the position where I go, If we’re going to do this and I’m going to spend two years working every day, then it should be something I’m excited to do.”
Clooney’s outlook is enviable, and one I keep considering in light of his recent career choices. After Suburbicon, in 2019 he co-directed and appeared in an adaptation of Catch-22 for Hulu (which got solid reviews while missing out on major Emmy nominations), then in 2020 he directed and starred in the sci-fi parable The Midnight Sky for Netflix (which earned a more muted reception). His latest film, The Tender Bar, is similar to those two projects in that it’s based on a book (in this case, a memoir by J. R. Moehringer), it’s been made for a streaming company (this time, Amazon), and it’s the kind of thing Hollywood doesn’t make as much of anymore—an upscale drama aimed squarely at adults.
The Tender Bar is also Clooney’s best piece of filmmaking in years, though that’s somewhat by default; Suburbicon was an ambitious train wreck, The Midnight Sky a handsome-looking snooze. Though Clooney’s first two movies as a director (the biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the historical drama Good Night, and Good Luck) are excellent, everything he’s made since then hasn’t worked for me. His disinterest in pursuing purely commercial projects is admirable; his films harken back to a time when studios focused on more than just churning out action-packed blockbusters. Yet despite their intriguing source material, many of the movies end up as fairly hollow homages.
Beyond what I’ve already mentioned, Clooney made Leatherheads, a screwball comedy about football in the 1920s that tried to evoke Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks; The Ides of March, a political thriller told in the tradition of paranoid ’60s and ’70s classics; and The Monuments Men, a star-studded World War II film straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. They’re all incredibly flawed works, but they’re also packed with A-list actors, were made with proper budgets, and were marketed and released widely by their studios. Those endorsements are a testament to Clooney’s clout—in every case, however, the final product felt disappointingly safe and dull.
Ironically, The Tender Bar succeeds partly because of its lack of ambition. Where his other recent films get lost in intense, complex plotting, The Tender Bar is a hangout movie that relies on easygoing performances from a talented ensemble. The script, by William Monahan, loosely assembles Moehringer’s memories from his days as a Long Island kid (played by Tye Sheridan). Abandoned by his dad, he spends much of his adolescence at a bar owned by his charming uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck). Clooney’s film bounces between the protagonist’s childhood at the bar and his struggles to become a journalist as a grown-up. The material with Uncle Charlie is the most entertaining, helped along by a terrifically natural, lived-in performance from Affleck.
Although I appreciated the pared-down plot, it still doesn’t capture the impassioned energy of Clooney’s early projects. Moehringer’s journey to success and independence can’t find a compelling hook beyond the hangouts, and so the film is almost overwhelmingly gentle. The acting is good, while the story fails to really hang together. The same is true for a lot of Clooney projects—perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s attentive to the subtleties of an actor’s performance, but the scripts he’s chosen of late have been short on narrative propulsion.
Clooney himself may have realized that. After concentrating on directing for the past few years, he’s booked leading roles in two major projects. Due out this fall is Ol Parker’s Ticket to Paradise, in which he and Julia Roberts play former lovers uniting to help their daughter. He’s also attached to a thriller from the director Jon Watts (who made the latest Spider-Man films) that will reunite him with his Ocean’s Eleven co-star Brad Pitt; Apple recently won a fierce bidding war for the rights. Both sound like classic Hollywood projects more in the mold of what made Clooney a star in the first place; more importantly, his leading role for each will be in front of the camera. Clooney’s enthusiasm for shepherding niche films to screens is certainly endearing, but he might be best suited for channeling his prestige as an actor, rather than as a director, going forward.