The Tender Bar movie review: Ben Affleck is in fine form in George Clooney's frequently funny, empathetic directorial
George Clooney lets his protagonist breathe, and The Tender Bar is a richer, funnier, wiser story because of that.
“See this? This little compartment in your wallet, right? That’s where you keep your stashies. That’s like a 100 bucks, five, whatever, depending upon the economy. The important thing is, you never, ever drink that money. What else? Hold doors. Be good to your mother. Teach you how to change a tire, jump a car. That’s it.”
One of the strongest scenes in director George Clooney’s The Tender Bar sees Charlie Maguire (Ben Affleck) teaching his young nephew JR (Daniel Ranieri, played by Tye Sheridan as a young adult) "the male sciences," summarised in the dialogue quoted above. The boy’s father (Max Martini) has recently left his mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe), and Charlie, a self-taught man (the family did not have enough money to send him to college, it is implied), who runs a bar called ‘The Dickens’ (appropriately filled with books), is trying to be the father figure in the little boy’s life. Affleck is quite moving as Charlie, his winning smile blunted just enough at the edges to reflect the elephant in the familial room: that the odds are stacked against young JR (and that Charlie is living proof).
After the divorce, Dorothy moves back into her father’s (Christopher Lloyd, in one of his many eccentric grandpa roles) old house with Charlie and the rest of the extended family. While JR likes having a revolving cast of young cousins playing and horsing around the place, Dorothy resents not being able to give her child a better life; she vows that JR will, one day, go to "either Harvard or Yale."
As one might expect of a young boy, this cozy but somewhat complicated home life gets to be too much for young JR sometimes, and he starts hanging out with Charlie and his Long Island buddies at The Dickens. As the name of the film suggests, this is the crux of the story — how young JR comes of age at this bar full of books and puzzles. The “tender” part seeks to place The Dickens in opposition to the hard-drinking, machismo-led model of male behaviour. Charlie’s little monologue about “the male sciences” sets the tone for that towards the beginning of the film.
Broadly speaking, the first half of the film follows JR from boyhood up until his first year in college, and the second half follows his fledgling writerly career. It’s fair to say that the first half works much better than the second. There are good structural reasons for that — the story of a working-class kid trying to make it to an Ivy League college (on scholarship, mind you, because that is the only way he can afford to go) is immediately appealing to a wide cross-section of people.
However, as JR himself admits in an internal monologue towards the end, there is no real origin story to becoming a writer. There are no real institutional standards, and moreover, nobody can ‘explain’ how or why they write, beyond a point. Charting that path across 30 to 40 minutes was always going to be an uphill task, and understandably, The Tender Bar loses some steam in its second half.
For the most part, however, The Tender Bar is a frequently funny, empathetic Bildungsroman led by Ben Affleck in fine form.
He has been nominated for a Golden Globe for the role, and I feel he had a good shot at the award.
The Tender Bar is based on the 2005 memoir of the same name by JR Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist. Moehringer worked on Andre Agassi’s superb memoir Open, and is reportedly the ghostwriter for Prince Harry’s upcoming memoir too. The man clearly has a way with life stories, and to his credit, Clooney has brought some of that energy to The Tender Bar — a lot of JR’s voiceovers are witty observations on the historiography of it all, about the silly, messy, downright vital business of chronicling a life, any life, really. Because of this, the film risks coming across as sluggish, arguably. But I loved this, actually: Clooney is smart enough to realise that not all stories adhere strictly (or even at all) to the three-act structure. He lets JR breathe, and The Tender Bar is a richer, funnier, wiser story because of that.
The Tender Bar is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.
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