A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2022

THE TENDER BAR jjj

2021, R, 104 mins.

Ben Affleck as Uncle Charlie  /  Tye Sheridan as J. R. Moehringer    Lily Rabe as Dorothy Moehringer  /  Christopher Lloyd as Grandpa  /   Daniel Ranieri as Young J. R. Moehringer  /  Rhenzy Feliz as Wesley  /  Briana Middleton as Sidney  /  Max Casella as Chief

Directed by George Clooney  /  Written by William Monahan, based on the memoir by J.R. Moehringer

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

If you want to witness how a single performance can help to greatly elevate a relatively middling drama then look no further than THE TENDER BAR, the new Amazon Prime original film based on the 2005 memoir of the same name by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and writer J.R. Moehringer.  

The film tells an obligatory, dime-a-dozen themed coming of age tale that seems cherry picked from better elements from so many other finer examples of the genre, which leads to the end result here coming off as somewhat pedestrian and lacking in innovation.  Yet, one huge ace up director George Clooney's sleeve here is a wonderfully modulated and straight shooting supporting performance by Ben Affleck, who demonstrates here as he did with turns in the recent THE LAST DUEL and his terribly undervalued 2020 sports drama THE WAY BACK that he's on a serious career comeback journey.  Affleck makes the routine material in THE TENDER BAR resonate more than it probably would have under a lesser talent's hand.   

And maybe some props should go out to Clooney the director as well, seeing as with last year's decent sci-fi thriller THE MIDNIGHT SKY and now this he's on a modest filmmaking comeback himself, especially after starting his directorial career so promisingly with CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK in the mid 2000s, only to make multiple less than memorable films after that.  He teams up well with writer William Monahan (who penned Martin Scorsese's THE DEPARTED way back when) to adapt Moehringer's genuinely feel-good, comfort food memoir about his early childhood to adulthood times with his dysfunctional family in Long Island of the 70s and 80s.  We've all seen films like THE TENDER BAR so bloody many times before that it would be easy to quickly dismiss it if it weren't so well suffused with authentic heart-warming sentiment and, yes, rock solid performances.  I also latched on to the fact that THE TENDER BAR is about blue collar, working class people desperately trying to find their way in life and how Moehringer himself - definitely not born with a silver spoon in his mouth - had to work and work hard for career respectability as a bona fide writer.   

 

 

Clooney does a resoundingly good job of quickly immersing us in Long Island of the early 70s (1973 to be precise) as the film opens, during which time we're introduced the poverty stricken Dorothy (Lily Rabe) and her wide eyed and optimistic minded 9-year-old son in J.R. (newcomer Daniel Ranieri, a wonderful new find).   They're forced to move back home to Manhasset, Long Island after Dorothy has gone several months without making rent payments.  Penniless and without much in the way of bountiful career prospects, Dorothy moves herself and J.R. back into her family residence with her crusty and cantankerous father (a mischievous Christopher Lloyd) and brother in Charlie (Affleck).  Good ol' Uncle Charlie sure is a character.  He runs a local watering hole called The Dickens Bar that serves the alcoholic needs of multiple generations of Islanders while dishing out literary advice and books on loan that he has on shelves behind the beer taps.  As for J.R.'s dad?  He's a dead beat alcoholic radio host (Max Martini) that hasn't been a part of his life for a majority of it, leaving Uncle Charlie pinch hitting as a surrogate father figure.  Charlie relishes in teaching young J.R. everything about being a man to come while instilling in him an appreciation for literature.  As J.R. grows up to young adulthood (Tye Sheridan) he has aspirations to be a writer, with his mother making it her mission to - somehow and someway - get her child into Yale. 

It's pretty clear quite early on that Affleck isn't really obnoxiously scenery chewing his way through THE TENDER BAR playing this Cadillac driving, f-bomb uttering, and tavern owning uncle as much as he's just totally owning the role and infusing it with a considerable amount of understated and infectious charm.  Charlie is an intriguing creation here: He's a tough talking, take-no-shit-from-anyone hooligan that's assuredly no saint, to be sure.  Having said that, he's not a punch drunk dummy either despite being the type of poor sap that seems to have been beaten down by life in general.  He's not educated at all, but is surprisingly book smart in terms of his appreciation for literary classics, which he tries as he can to pass on to young J.R. to nurture what will become his true calling and passion later in life.  That, and Charlie wants to gently pass on an informal education about "the male sciences" on J.R. as he matures into a college bound late teen, especially on matters of drinking and the opposite sex.  Affleck plays such a loveable lug here so well that it all but erodes the formulaic nature of his character and J.R.'s whole coming of age arc.  And to watch Affleck here right after his other Oscar nomination worthy turn in THE LAST DUEL is to be reminded of what a superbly versatile actor he is when given just the right role and material.   

Affleck is flanked by many solid actors as well, in particular Tye Sheridan, who also gives one of his more natural performances of recent memory of the older J.R. (his chemistry with Affleck is palpable throughout and you really gain a sense of the history that these characters share).  And it's certainly enjoyable to witness J.R. climbing the ranks of Yale and eventually getting hired at the New York Times, which paved the way for his later career accolades (the film is a moving testament to the power of perseverance when it comes to one man's passionate drive to achieve his occupational dream).  But J.R.'s personal journey here is nevertheless painted with achingly familiar brush strokes.  Tales of young and impressionable kids/teens being given unlikely mentor figures in their unconventional family members is as old as the movies themselves.  There are no genre stones left unturned by Monahan's script and Clooney's fairly journeymen-like direction.  We get standard order voiceover narration tracks of the older and wiser J.R. reflecting on his times with his kooky uncle.  We get a soundtrack littered with iconic hits of yesteryear.  We get a colorful menagerie of working class eccentrics that make up this kid's larger family unit.  We get setback and success stories that permeate the young man's slow and challenging rise to occupational glory and escape from his humble hometown roots.  Like, yeah, if it weren't for Clooney's steady hand behind the camera and the work of seasoned actors in front of it then THE TENDER BAR might have fallen into the category of a watchable, but cheaply disposable period drama.  

There is one other distracting issue that taints this film.  Affleck is - in real life - a man that has been afflicted with alcoholism and now ironically plays a character here that runs a bar and serves drinks to the town's alcoholics (and later his legal drinking aged nephew).  Charlie himself is someone that has also had his brushes with addiction as well, but gives out literary advice to J.R. while serving hard liquor to his clients.  If you exclude J.R.'s terribly underwritten absentee father figure, THE TENDER BAR has so very little to say about drinking and addiction to drinking.  And when one thinks about Affleck's own well publicized battles with sobriety, I think the casualness of Charlie's alcoholism - and how it's treated so nonchalantly here overall - is a real botched opportunity by Clooney and company.  Beyond that, Monahan's script also doesn't do his female characters much justice either, most noticeably when it comes to J.R.'s mother and a really undercooked subplot with J.R. and his on-again, off-again fling with a fellow Yale student (Brianna Middleton); she's more of a plot device propelling J.R.'s story forward than a fully realized character. 

Still, I'm recommending THE TENDER BAR on the strengths of Affleck's presence here and for how much warmth that Clooney imbues in this otherwise trite material.  I think that both Clooney as a director and Affleck as an actor are well above the genre trappings presented here, but they both work in tandem to take the tired formulas contained within THE TENDER BAR and cultivate them into an easygoing and entertaining drama that will appease most viewers.  This film doesn't reinvent the coming of age period film wheel at all, and even though it lacks sizeable dramatic punch throughout the individual moments sprinkled throughout the narrative feel lived-in and real.  And seeing a career rejuvenated Affleck take on a rather stock character type and thanklessly make it uniquely and refreshingly his own is reason enough to visit THE TENDER BAR.

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