Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
George Clooney’s eighth feature as director is the most pared down film he’s done. As strange as it will sound, Clooney’s career and trajectory remind me of M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan’s early films are his best, but, after his most successful film in the box office The Sixth Sense (1999), his films’ quality from a critical standpoint start to decline. The box office for Shyamalan started to crash until it got to a point where he had to do a very pared down, very simple production, The Visit (2015), which rebounded him somewhat. Clooney hasn’t made as many films as Shyamalan, but I would argue that Clooney’s best films are his first two, that of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). His 2005 film is probably Clooney’s most successful from a critical standpoint. Since then though, his filmmaking output has gone down. Clooney was never doing the big-budget films as Shyamalan. Clooney’s previous film The Midnight Sky (2020) has probably been his most expensive. I’m not sure what the budget for this film is, but it can’t be anywhere near that of The Midnight Sky.
Here, Clooney is adapting the memoir of John Joseph “J.R.” Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Moehringer was raised by his single mother on Long Island, New York. He went to high school in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1982. He graduated from Yale University in 1986. He got a job at The New York Times. He became a reporter for The Los Angeles Times in 1994. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. He published his memoir five years later. He then helped write the memoirs or autobiographies for celebrities, such as Andre Agassi in 2009, Phil Knight in 2016 and Prince Harry, reportedly for 2022. This film focuses on Moehringer’s time as a 7-year-old boy and basically tracks his life over the next 15 years, just before he started working as a reporter. Clooney is likely being faithful to Moehringer’s memoir, but I would argue that those 15 years are not the most interesting years of Moehringer’s life.
Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One and Joe) stars as JR Maguire, the young man in his early 20’s who is the proxy for Moehringer. The film doesn’t start with him. The film starts with Daniel Ranieri, in his feature debut, who plays JR Maguire as a 7-year-old. For some reason, the film jumps back-and-forth between Ranieri and Sheridan, akin to Hillbilly Elegy (2020). As that 2020 film bounced between a young boy dealing with his somewhat dysfunctional family and an older teenage boy attempting to get into college, this film does the same, at least for its first half.
The main issue revolves around the fact that JR yearns to spend time with his absentee father who occasionally calls or visits but is mostly a ghost in JR’s life. The second issue involves a romance between JR and a young Black female student at Yale. The last issue involves JR’s attempt to pursue a writing career and his self-confidence in whether or not he can call himself a writer. Even though I think that the most interesting part of Moehringer’s life is his work that resulted in him earning a Pulitzer Prize, reporting on Gee’s Bend in Alabama, I can accept a film about his childhood instead, but, despite being only 15 years, there’s still too much being juggled and not enough is here to keep it all in the air.
Ben Affleck (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Gone Girl) co-stars as Charlie Maguire, the maternal uncle to JR. It’s not clear, but it seems as if Charlie still lives at his parents’ home in Manhasset, New York. He works as a bartender and seems like he runs that watering hole or is the manager in a way. His friends also seem to be barflies or regulars in that place. Otherwise, Charlie is just laying on his parents’ couch. When JR and his mother move into that same place, Charlie becomes an easy father figure or surrogate parent for JR, teaching the boy how to be a man and how to have confidence in himself.
Affleck has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance here. Affleck is charming and warm, as well as a representation of masculinity in the 70’s and 80’s that isn’t as toxic as it could have been. He’s supportive and encouraging. He’s tough and foul-mouthed when he wants to be, but he actually is somewhat sweet and sensitive. It’s a good performance, but if I were going to nominate Affleck for any role this past year, it would be for The Last Duel (2021).
When the film begins with its voice-over of what seems like an older man looking back at his childhood, I got vibes of The Wonder Years (1988). If this film had stayed with JR as a little boy, focusing on this boy yearning for a father figure and searching for one, as the log line suggests, then the film could’ve been stronger. The film gets diluted when it starts jumping back-and-forth to the older boy. JR starts to have a romance with Sidney, played by Briana Middleton, in her feature debut. She’ll have sex with him but won’t pursue an official relationship with him. She even reveals that she’s dating other people but there is no exploration of her social life or inner life beyond that.
There is an intriguing scene involving JR visiting Sidney’s parents for Christmas. It’s a slight look into a bourgeoisie family and particularly a Black woman looking down at JR as poor white trash. It’s also about a judgment that Sidney’s parents and especially her mother makes about JR. However, this scene and indeed the story line involving Sidney feels really inconsequential by the end. If the film were about him earning his Pulitzer Prize, which is him writing an article about an isolated Black community, then Sidney’s role in his life might make some kind of sense.
Finally, JR’s attempt to pursue a writing career gets a bit of short shrift. Yes, there are scenes that depict JR at a typewriter and Charlie giving him books to read. Yet, the film fails to really depict JR’s passion for writing. It might be Sheridan’s performance or Clooney’s direction, which riddles JR with so much self-doubt, but I never truly felt his passion for writing. The film never even shows us any of his work. We’re told that he’s a good writer, but we’re never shown any of his writings or articles.
Rated R for sexual content, alcohol use, smoking and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.
Available on Amazon Prime.