There are no big, aha moments in The Tender Bar. Episodic and intimately scaled, the coming-of-age story takes George Clooney as far from high concept as he’s gone as a director. His eighth feature is also the warmest movie he’s made, the polar opposite of his previous outing, the sci-fi saga The Midnight Sky, which was spun from stark set pieces and an icy palette. In its focus on a working-class neighborhood in the Long Island town of Manhasset, the new film favors ’70s earth tones, the more faded and smoke-stained the better, and it’s alive with messy, loving clashes and bursts of joy.
The story of a writer’s coming of age, The Tender Bar condenses the best-selling 2005 memoir of the same name by journalist J.R. Moehringer (most recently the ghostwriter of Prince Harry’s autobiography). Working from William Monahan’s uneven adaptation, Clooney has a clear affection for the period, the milieu and the characters, and fittingly keeps the events filtered through the eyes of J.R., seen first as a 9-year-old (the terrifically charismatic Daniel Ranieri) and then as a young adult (Tye Sheridan, watchful and sensitive).
The Tender Bar
The Bottom Line
A small-scale charmer with an ace turn from Affleck.
At its core the film is a valentine to J.R.’s Uncle Charlie, the man who steps in to mentor the boy after his biological father turns out to be an MIA deadbeat. He might be a grown man who still lives with his parents, but Charlie accepts his place in the world and makes the most of it. He’s the epitome of equanimity, aplomb personified, and he’s played by Ben Affleck with a beautifully offbeat proletarian gentility, in one of his most eye-opening performances.
Clooney bolsters the low-key action with infectious rock and pop songs of perfect vintage, from Jackson Browne to the Isley Brothers, from “Radar Love” to “Do It Again.” You might say he leans on them, but they can bear the weight, and they infuse the film with a buoyant sense of nostalgia. The Tender Bar, which begins its stateside theatrical run in December and launches globally on Amazon Prime in early January, is a movie that prioritizes feeling over structure. If it struggles to find a rhythm, especially in the early going, there’s no question that it sends you off on a gentle high.
The feature moves across a period of about 15 years, beginning in 1973, when young J.R. Maguire and his financially strapped mother (Lily Rabe) return “home” — meaning her run-down childhood home in Manhasset, still occupied by her irascible father, (Christopher Lloyd), her mother (Sondra James, in her final film role) and Uncle Charlie, and frequently hosting a raucous collection of visiting cousins. For J.R.’s mother, the return is proof of her failure. But he welcomes the change: “I like to have people,” the future writer notes, soaking it all in.
J.R. especially likes the chance to be around his uncle, who tends bar at the Dickens, a neighborhood watering hole that he keeps well stocked with books he knows forward and backward. A pretension-free authority in this circumscribed world — you might assume he owns the place — Charlie advises J.R. in “the male sciences”: his well-honed code of how to behave decently toward yourself, women, the world. He sparks the kid’s desire to be an author, and offers measured praise when he produces a family gazette on his manual typewriter.
Everyone the boy meets asks “What does J.R. stand for?” That’s a sore point given that his dad, a Top 40 disc jockey in New York City who’s played by Max Martini with a mix of hissable bullying and gruff, pathetic bluster, is the kind of guy who promises his son he’ll take him to a Mets game and then stands him up. Mostly he’s absent from J.R.’s life except as a booming baritone voice on the FM dial. Charlie, by contrast, is a straight shooter. “Don’t look to your father to save you,” he advises his nephew. And, he adds, based on what he’s observed of J.R.’s athletic skills, “Don’t play sports.”
On the rare occasion, Grandpa, a onetime Dartmouth man who somehow fell on hard times, puts aside his all-purpose disgruntlement to show up for J.R. too. This is an era with a narrow definition of a nuclear family, and it’s no small thing when Gramps dons his finest duds to join the boy for a father-son breakfast at his school; Lloyd offers glimmers of something softening in the man, however miserable he looks and acts. But it’s the Dickens, a hangout filled with friendly regulars (Max Casella, Michael Braun, Matthew Delamater), that becomes J.R.’s sanctuary. As a kid he enjoys the barflies’ repartee and learns their lingo, and as a young man he gravitates there when he needs advice or comfort.
Before the movie switches to J.R.’s college years, Clooney intercuts a couple of brief scenes of Sheridan traveling on a bus, then a train, where he strikes up a conversation with a priest (Bill Meleady). It takes a distracting minute to connect his character with Danieri’s; there’s little physical resemblance between them. But in a narrative fueled by feelings of connection, their emotional DNA binds them. (At one point the two versions of J.R. “meet,” and it works, the imaginary exchange sharp and free of mawkishness.)
In this story of boys and men, the women tend to be riddles, sometimes ciphers. J.R.’s grandmother is a background figure; one of Charlie’s exes (Shannon Collis) shows up ever so briefly; and J.R.’s mother, a hardworking secretary, is mainly a constellation of ambitions for her son. That he attend Yale is less a wish than an imperative, however lovingly expressed. In Rabe’s performance, the character’s maternal devotion is never in doubt, but she’s clearest as the antithesis of Charlie’s poise and self-confidence. It takes a while to see the idealism these dissimilar siblings share.
When she faces a serious health scare, the event is treated so tersely that it’s almost an afterthought. But what at first feels like a strikingly awkward filmmaking choice gradually sinks in as a reflection of the way young J.R. experiences the event, through the limited information given to him by the grown-ups.
In Sheridan’s portion of the story, J.R. moves beyond the Dickens and his fractious household into a world of privilege (Yale, a stint at The New York Times). These years are shaped by banter, both philosophical and practical, with roommate Wesley (Rhenzy Feliz), and mainly by J.R.’s on-again, off-again romance with his first girlfriend, Sydney (Brianna Middleton). In their initial conversation, she’s so sophisticated and assured that it’s hard to believe she’s a college student, let alone a freshman. Her casual cruelty turns into the defining pattern of their relationship. In his beaming openness in Sydney’s presence, Sheridan conveys why J.R. keeps returning to her. (Conversely, the way his face goes still and cold during a particularly ugly incident with his father communicates a life-changing reckoning.) During a visit to Sydney’s home in the la-di-da suburbia of Westport, Connecticut, J.R.’s tense breakfast with her parents (Mark Boyett and Quincy Tyler Bernstine) tips into the absurd, recalling the memorably uncomfortable meet-the-parents meal in Goodbye, Columbus, and giving Clooney a chance to express his taste for edgier, satiric terrain.
The episodes gather like pieces of a puzzle, some clearer-edged and more effective than others. In early scenes, the screenplay by Monahan (The Departed) is verbose and works too hard. Characters’ frictions sit right on the surface, and at times the film could have pushed deeper. But there’s something to be said for the way Clooney stays true to J.R.’s perspective throughout the story, never injecting commentary from on high, and not turning him into a more conventional protagonist rather than the essentially passive one he is, an observer.
It’s refreshing that nobody in the film is treated as a problem to be solved, a character arc to be charted. Though some of them take on new challenges, no one really changes over the course of The Tender Bar. That’s especially the case with Charlie, who maintains an aura of mystery as well as humor and wisdom. In Affleck’s exquisitely inflected performance, Charlie doesn’t need a backstory explaining why he hasn’t “settled down.” It’s enough to watch him loading his Caddie with friends for a trip to the beach or the Bowladrome (Boston-area locations convincingly play Long Island).
Even with the fond glances at long shiny cars and all those glorious music tracks, nothing about the film screams “’70s period piece”; Clooney and his collaborators evoke the period without turning it into a showcase. Against the worn interiors of the Maguire home and the Dickens, a campus party or the bustle of a newsroom when newsrooms were noisy and full of motion, the production design (by Kalina Ivanov), costumes (Jenny Eagan) and cinematography (Martin Ruhe) always foreground character.
And in Charlie we have an unforgettable character, from his very first appearance onscreen. After greeting his sister and nephew and explaining to them that they’re about to enter a house full of relatives, Charlie flashes a shrugging smile and utters an amused “Whadda ya gonna do?” Then he gives us that shrugging smile again, and somehow it contains a whole life’s story.