J.R., the hero of George Clooney’s The Tender Bar, wants to be a writer. He says as much to everyone he meets—first as a saucer-eyed kid played by Daniel Ranieri, then as an earnestly pained young man played by Elkhart native and Austin resident Tye Sheridan. An older J.R. tells the audience as well, in voiceover (provided by Office Space star Ron Livingston), narrating from a future in which he’s clearly already succeeded. Even without knowing that J.R. is J. R. Moehringer, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist whose 2005 memoir is adapted here, we’re reassured from the jump that he’ll eventually realize his dreams.

To its credit, The Tender Bar is at least self-conscious about its lack of dramatic tension. In a scene where J.R. waxes about his literary ambitions to a kindly Catholic priest, the latter asks about the “main theme” of the story J.R. is dying to tell. J.R. suggests it could be an absentee father, maybe. After all, he and his flinty, devoted mother, Dorothy (Lily Rabe), were more or less abandoned by J.R.’s dad. Played by Max Martini, he’s a drunk, abusive DJ who’s known as “the Voice” for his resonant tones, as well as for the disembodied presence he maintains in J.R.’s life through the radio and the occasional, scotch-fueled telephone call. 

But there’s not much drama to be found there, either. The Tender Bar begins in 1973 as J.R. and Dorothy move back in with her parents, settling into a chaotically homey house teeming with colorful Long Island relatives. There J.R. finds several surrogate fathers in waiting, including his gruff-yet-loving grandfather (Christopher Lloyd) and his uncle, Charlie (Ben Affleck), a sentient hangover with a heart of gold. Charlie quickly proves to be everything J.R. needs, schooling his nephew in the “male sciences” of booze and cars, while also sharing some of the wisdom he’s gleaned from all the dusty brown books that line the shelves of his dive bar, the Dickens. Even Charlie’s barfly regulars become personally invested in J.R., cheering him on through the years as if he’s their own. With this entire village of lovable louts to raise him, who actually needs a dad?

Perhaps the theme, J.R. suggests to the priest, could instead be “poor boy wants rich girl.” He falls in love with the wealthy, Westport-raised Sidney (Briana Middleton), but she doesn’t return his affections. Instead she just strings him along while she dates other guys. “It’s been done,” the priest shrugs. But while Western literature is indeed filled with stories about men pining for women way out of their leagues, that isn’t what makes The Tender Bar’s unrequited romance feel so uncompelling. It’s that we know next to nothing about Sidney—or what, exactly, J.R. sees in her, other than the fact that she occasionally seems to find J.R. fascinating. Sidney serves as little more than a reflection of J.R.’s own aggrandized self-image, a defect shared by most of the film’s characters. Ultimately, everyone in J.R.’s orbit gets reduced to this kind of superficial sketch, their stories oriented entirely around his own, not especially interesting narrative. 

We know almost nothing about Dorothy, for example, beyond her oft-repeated insistence that J.R. to go to Yale and study law. Even a brief bout with cancer is introduced as something J.R. has to deal with, before it’s just as breezily shrugged off. J.R.’s grandfather is a grumpy, Christopher Lloyd–haired codger who’s briefly shown waxing eloquently about economics, but he spends most of his screen time filling his recliner with farts. Martini pops up a couple of times to be alternately menacing and pathetic, but as he himself acknowledges, he’s just the “bad guy” lurking in the perimeters of J.R.’s psyche, giving his life the requisite veneer of trauma to make it worth writing about. 

The Tender Bar devotes a bit more attention to Affleck’s Uncle Charlie, whom both J.R. and the film regard with a sort of mythical, adolescent awe. Charlie’s a bluntly spoken, blue-collar guru who makes casual reference to Thomas Aquinas and sprinkles fifty-cent words like “rapprochement” into his frequent monologues. He’s an amalgam of Affleck’s and Matt Damon’s characters from Good Will Hunting—Charlie similarly gets the intellectual drop on any stuffed shirt who dares underestimate him—but he’s also seasoned with the salt-and-pepper weariness that Affleck has more lately acquired. This mode suits Affleck, as evidenced by the fact that The Tender Bar recently snagged him a Golden Globe nomination, and his ample charisma makes the film pleasant enough to waste time with. But he, too, remains largely unexplored. If Charlie’s so smart and capable, why is he still living at home? Why doesn’t he have any children of his own, or even show any interest in maintaining a relationship? The film hints at a gambling problem, suggesting there’s a darker story there. Yet we’re kept always at a distance, our picture of Uncle Charlie remaining as reverent and unsullied as J.R.’s own.

Unfortunately, J.R. never quite comes into focus either. From Mud all the way up to the recent The Card Counter, Sheridan has carved out a unique niche for himself, playing neglected or abused young men who overcome the bad hands they’re dealt with a quiet, coiled resilience. But here, save for one late-film confrontation with his father, J.R. mostly comes across as inert, occasionally impatient about his destiny, but otherwise nonchalant about the few minor obstacles that are thrown his way. Not every portrait of the artist as a young man has to see him morally tested like Stephen Dedalus, or take a beating like Tobias Wolff, or survive mortar fire like Ernest Hemingway. But The Tender Bar never makes the case for why, exactly, J.R. is worth following, or what makes his lower-middle-class odyssey so notable. At least the lack of conflict means Sheridan gets to spend most of the film with a rare smile on his face.

The Tender Bar shares his mellow glow, bathed in an earth-toned warmth that radiates softly from its detailed seventies interiors and Affleck’s impeccable leather–and–polyester knit wardrobe. The soundtrack is likewise filled with amber FM gold from the likes of Steely Dan and Paul Simon; it’s amazing, frankly, to consider how much money Amazon must have sunk into a film this slight. There’s a nostalgic comfort to The Tender Bar, which is often content to nurse a hazy, day-drinker’s buzz while its characters hang out, chatting about life or going candlepin bowling. 

Clooney—whose previous directorial efforts have mostly been big, message-laden movies like Good Night, and Good Luck and last year’s The Midnight Sky—has said he was drawn to the lightness and simplicity of Moehringer’s story. He’s certainly delivered on that here, and some may be content just to bask in it—to pull up a stool while the film rambles to its foregone conclusion, like a mildly intriguing barroom anecdote you’ll start forgetting halfway out the door. But mostly it serves as a reminder of the difference between wanting to tell a story and actually having something to say.