George Clooney’s The Tender Bar has, above everything else, a crucial mentor character that wins over the entire film. When regular dads are absent or inadequate, father-figures are incredibly important for an malleable kid. We’ve seen plenty of them in movies before, but Ben Affleck’s Charlie character feels more spot-on and special than usual. When he’s there putting an arm around a shoulder or mixing a martini with a yarn to tell, you’ll either wish for or recall your own Uncle Charlie from your life. Everyone needs an Uncle Charlie.
That reminiscent effect washes over The Tender Bar like a cold beer after a long day, it’s simple, refreshing, flavorful at times, and potent when repeated. The Good Night and Good Luck and The Midnight Sky director sits back and lets the charisma flow like that tavern tap. For this cinematic establishment, you’re there for the people as much as you are the libations. The Tender Bar offers enough of both to keep you around and make an impression on Amazon Prime.
Narrated by Ron Livingston, The Tender Bar is based on the 2005 autobiographical memoir of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer and adapted by Oscar-winning The Departed screenwriter William Monahan. This journey is about growing up under the care of a single mother in a multigenerational household with blue collar roots in 1973 Manhasset, New York. At a young age, J.R. (played as a kid by wonderful newcomer Daniel Ranieri) shows signs of being an astute reader with the educational talents to escape the bourgeoisie of Long Island’s north shore. Estranged from her radio DJ ex (Max Martini) with no place to go, J.R.’s mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe of American Horror Story) moves back in with her father (Christopher Lloyd, a pure treat) in hopes of providing some stability for her son and his future.
The best pillar for that solidarity and security comes from Dorothy’s brother Charlie, the perpetual bachelor and Ford Fairlane-driving owner of The Dickens Bar. Behind the tiers of bottles lie shelves of literary classics that are more than decoration. Those curated volumes are distilled by the gruff life experiences of the present middle class to create a nest of gumption and self-made intelligence for J.R., who grows as a teen (switch to Ready Player One’s Tye Sheridan) to have Ivy League aspirations.
According to this smarter-than-your-average bartender, being a man includes learning the “male sciences” of four primary requirements: A car, a job, “stash cash” in your wallet you only spend in emergencies, and having your sh-t together. Clearly, some of those are easier to come by than others, with the last one being the hardest. There’s no book or therapy for that benchmark. If there was a fifth one, it would be “being present,” which is something the good men of The Tender Bar, including Charlie and Lloyd’s grandpa, step up to make happen.
Even as J.R. cultivates his future career and finds his people at Yale, the unresolved family trauma skews his confidence and holds him back. When romance buds in J.R.’s life in the form of fetching classmate Sydney (the debuting Briana Middleton), those invisible blocks become more apparent. Sure, as the movie says, “women decide the beginnings and ends of relationships,” but J.R. insufferably develops quite a hang-up with a girl that clearly has his number in defeat. He’s forgetting what he learned and missing the part he needs to conquer himself.
It’s very apparent that nothing comes easy, nor should it. Also in the same vein, we know it’s the influences around you, be them family, friends, or lovers, during your formative years that make you the adult individual you become. As previously mentioned, at some point, the growth has to come from within. This big arc towards the goal of creating the best possible J.R. is where the emotional challenges of The Tender Bar waver between affecting and forgettable. The end result is just another aspiring writer, even if he, in real life, has reached great success.
For as much as we’ve seen movies about father-figures, we’ve seen seemingly triple the same number of movies about aspiring writers who can’t get out of their own way to achieve success. The Tender Bar has no fresh take whatsoever on that starving artist cliché. When Tye Sheridan’s version takes over (Sidenote: Tye’s a shade too old to convincingly play a teen anymore), the plotted screenplay from Monahan moves with very little risk. The smart kid has grown up and already made it to Yale and, soon after, The New York Times. It’s just a matter of pointing a compass for his talents and, by that point, less on the guiding adults and principles that got him there.
Before that later era of the 1980s, when The Tender Bar is on Daniel Ranieri’s kid and Affleck’s tutelage, the movie is really something as it deals with cancer, abandonment, manhood, and the observant wonders of childhood where adults are idols. That’s J.R. Moehringer’s story at its meatiest and neediest. It’s also where Clooney’s vibe and direction is at its best in creating a dynamic of guidance.
It would have been very easy to make Ben Affleck’s Uncle Charlie into an East Coast Ron Burgundy, complete with infinite coolness and loud characteristics for the 1970s style and the sake of standing out. Instead, the coolness is an easy given with Affleck’s mere screen presence alone. The illustrious star never overplays it. Each moment of easygoingness and smooth dialogue is matched by another he evokes with soothing or bracing honesty for the hardships at hand. That’s where Affleck and The Tender Bar glow towards some rare exceptionalism.