JR Moehringer (Daniel Ranieri) has come home to Manhasset. To grandpa, an eccentric old-timer who is smarter than he lets on and lazier than you can imagine. His Long Island house is falling apart, paint chip by paint chip, and JR couldn’t be happier. There are people in this house. There was no one where JR and his mother (Lily Rabe) came from. Dad (Max Martini) skipped out and stopped paying child support, so Mom and JR tuck tail and come home to Gramps (Christopher Lloyd). They’re not alone. The house is filled floor to ceiling with relatives that either wouldn’t or couldn’t leave. Including Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), JR’s hero.
Every kid could use an Uncle Charlie: Educated, easy-going, rebellious. Moehringer describes him with “flamboyant rudeness” in his memoir, The Tender Bar—the source material screenwriter William Monahan uses to pen the movie of the same name. George Clooney directs, and it’s a pretty successful adaptation. Not in detail, but in atmosphere.
There’s a lot of Moehringer’s memoir that Monahan and Clooney leave out in their 104-minute movie, but they get the feeling right. It’s a sad book about a father abandoning his child and the kid never quite growing past that moment. Dad’s a drunk, and JR becomes one too. He sobers up eventually, but, like a lot of drunks, he takes his time doing it.
About a third of Clooney’s Tender Bar sticks with JR as a child haunting the bar at Dickens where Uncle Charlie works. There he learns what it takes to be a man in the world, and it’s mostly positive. As for the negative trappings of masculinity, those come courtesy dear old dad—who bounces in and out of JR’s life as sporadically as he changes radio stations around the country. Dad’s a disc jockey with a voice tailor-made for commercial radio. It’s probably the only thing keeping him employed.
Lucky for mom, JR is smarter than his old man and works a hell of a lot harder. That’s how JR (now played by Tye Sheridan) gets into Yale, then the New York Times, where he picks up a couple of dots: J.R.
Sheridan plays JR full of bemused smiles, even as he’s being dumped for the third time by the same girl (Briana Middleton). Clooney matches his mood by presenting The Tender Bar as the past through rose-colored glass, slightly sanitized and set to the swinging sounds of the ’70s. Nothing here resembles conflict in the narrative sense, but there’s plenty that smacks of reflection. The movie’s only truly terrible misstep is a completely unnecessary voiceover from present tense JR (a never seen Ron Livingston) that pops up when it’s least necessary.
That makes The Tender Bar sound somewhat benign. It is, but whatever. Monahan and Clooney have enough fun with plenty of quips and insights to carry the story, and when there isn’t, there’s Affleck. Uncle Charlie fits him like a glove, and the role allows Affleck to flash his million-watt smile and that movie star charm that’s been missing for some time. Yes, the book is better—Hachette Books is even releasing a new paperback printing with a fresh afterword from Moehringer—but the movie’s far from a waste of time.
The Tender Bar (2021)
Directed by George Clooney
Screenplay by William Monahan
Adapted from J.R. Moehringer’s memoir of the same name
Produced by George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Ted Hope
Starring: Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Daniel Ranieri, Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, Max Martini, Briana Middleton
Amazon Studios, Rated R, Running time 104 minutes, Opens Dec. 22, 2021, in theaters and on Jan. 7, 2021, on Amazon Prime.