George Clooney returns to directing in The Tender Bar, an adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s memoir of the same name. With a screenplay by William Monahan, The Tender Bar very much feels like a memoir. It’s often sinuous in its storytelling, but it’s organically heartwarming and funny, with a lighthearted tone that sometimes keeps the film from leaping too far into its darker elements. Held together by the cast’s chemistry and strong character dynamics, The Tender Bar is a touching film about growing up and the people who shape you.
The Tender Bar follows young J.R. (Daniel Ranieri), who moves with his mother (Lily Rabe) to his grandfather’s (Christopher Lloyd) home on Long Island after his father, radio DJ Jonny Michaels (Max Martini), leaves them behind. J.R. spends his time hanging out with his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), the owner of a local bar called The Dickens. The film follows J.R. from childhood through his college years (when he is played by Tye Sheridan) as he learns from his uncle, aims to make his mother proud, and finds a loving community in the absence of his dad.
The Tender Bar is one of those slow, casual, warm-hearted coming-of-age films. There’s nothing particularly striking or profound about J.R.’s story, with its themes of absent fathers and found father-figures. But it’s filled with so much genuine affection, warmth, and well-rounded character relationships that it’s strong enough to maintain the audience’s attention despite its meandering. By the end of the film, there isn’t too much to be gleaned from J.R.’s time visiting his Uncle Charlie’s bar — and its role as a pivotal structure to J.R.’s future as a writer is not strongly defined. However, The Tender Bar is so achingly, well, tender and thoughtful that it’s hard not to be pulled into the story and the direction it goes.
The film is grounded because of its melancholy and the cast’s tremendous chemistry with each other works to uplift even the most monotonous of moments. Clooney doesn’t seem very interested in digging any deeper beyond the surface of J.R.’s past, but the story flows rather smoothly regardless, as though a gentle lapping of waves on a quiet shore. The voiceover work by Ron Livingston, portraying the older version of J.R., complements the more poignant and heartfelt moments in the film; the voiceover also adds to The Tender Bar feeling like the very memoir it’s adapted from.
The cast and character dynamics are ultimately the heart and soul of the film, with the dialogue and camaraderie between them seamless, heartbreaking, and quite often funny. Affleck is particularly memorable as Uncle Charlie, one of the anchors in his nephew’s life who is tough when need be, yet gentle and kind the rest of the time. He pushes J.R. to where he needs to go when he’s in doubt without ever becoming overbearing or cruel. To that end, he’s the exact opposite of J.R.’s father, who is distant and uninterested in what his son is up to or the kind of person he’s growing up to be.
The Tender Bar takes the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” to heart, maximizing it by way of J.R’s visits to The Dickens, where the bar’s patrons encourage, celebrate, and advise the young boy (and later, teenager) on life. There’s a deep sense of community that permeates throughout the film and it’s one of its most distinct attributes. Does the film stand out amongst the plethora of similar (and arguably stronger) coming-of-age movies? Probably not, especially in the long run. Regardless, The Tender Bar provides rich character relationships that bring the film’s story, which could have benefitted from tighter writing, to life in a thoughtful, lovely way.
Next: Tye Sheridan Interview: The Tender Bar
The Tender Bar released in limited theaters on December 17, 2021. It is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video as of January 7, 2022. The film is 106 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.