Movie Review: ‘The Tender Bar’

Greetings again from the darkness. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and journalist JR Moehringer published his memoir in 2005. Fortunately for him, it led to his being in high demand to pen the memoirs of others. Unfortunately for us, it also led to George Clooney directing a mostly listless movie version. Adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (THE DEPARTED, 2006), the film does offer a surprisingly interesting performance from Ben Affleck, while also failing to capitalize on other elements that could have provided a boost.

Opening with Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” blasting over the speakers, this is the story of JR – from his childhood through young adulthood. Young JR (the acting debut of Daniel Ranieri) is being raised by his resourceful single mom (Lily Rabe, ALL GOOD THINGS, 2010). Financial hardships force them from the city, back to the Long Island home of JR’s grumpy grandfather (Christopher Lloyd). Although his mother is a bit down at having to move back home, young JR embraces the slew of family members who use the house as a congregating spot. He’s also taken under the wing of Uncle Charlie (2 time Oscar winner Ben Affleck), who runs the neighborhood bar called The Dickens.

Uncle Charlie becomes JR’s adult male role model, and he passes along his love of reading to the boy. It’s this that inspires JR to dream of becoming a writer – a dream that doesn’t necessarily conflict with his mother’s dream for him to attend Yale. Other life lessons include cancer, bowling, and living with regular disappointment courtesy of JR’s absentee dad, a radio DJ referred to by the family as ‘The Voice’ (Max Martini, the “Fifty Shades” movies). In addition to Uncle Charlie’s ever-present cigarette, adult beverage, and book of the day, are the regulars at the bar played by Max Casella, Michael Braun, and Matthew Delamater. Regrettably, these guys rarely offer anything outside of well-placed one-liners. JR is surrounded by folks who say they will always be there for him. And they mean they will always be there. They aren’t going anywhere. Dreams and ambition don’t exist, except for JR’s mother – for her son, not for herself.

The first half of the movie is significantly more interesting and entertaining than the second. Once Tye Sheridan (MUD, 2012) takes over the role of JR, we immediately miss the bright eyes and eager spirit of young Daniel Ranieri. The realities of getting older set in as JR heads to Yale (class of ’86). As JR fumbles through a romantic relationship with classmate Sidney (Brianna Middleton), he’s little more than a typically clueless young man blind to realities of his situation. JR’s post-college stint at the New York Times delivers very little that interests us … heck, we aren’t even sure JR is interested in the job.

I rarely find Ben Affleck’s performance to be the best thing about a movie, but he is excellent here, following yet another terrific performance in THE WAY BACK (2020). Growing up, we all have role models. Affleck’s Uncle Charlie is one of those well-meaning adults who seemed larger than life when we were young. His endless advice can be categorized as some good, some not so good – a combination which renders most of it meaningless. But instilling a love of reading and learning is one of the most important traits one can pass along to a youngster. The movie’s issues aren’t with that message, but rather with the bland storytelling. The recurring gags of ‘what does JR stand for?’ and ‘where’s my 30 bucks?’ are just the most obvious misguided attempts at cuteness.

Opening in theaters December 22, 2021

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