I’m not one to frequent bars, the haze of alcohol and cigarettes turn me away, but I have been to a few coffee houses in bookstores or coffee shops with collection of books to be freely pulled and read. I don’t know if any of those have survived the pandemic nor if they were around during the 1970s into the 1980s when the film “The Tender Bar” takes place. George Clooney directs this meandering memoir with an affectionate glow and this might annoy you if you like your dramas, particularly coming-of-age stories, more direct and focused on a cathartic event.
John Joseph “J.R.” Moehringer (b. 7 December 1964) was born in New York City and raised by his mother in Manhasset, New York. He would eventually work for the Los Angeles Times and receive a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for feature writing. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir, “The Tender Bar,” touched many people and brought him increased success in writing. Andre Agassi read the book and asked Moehringer to help him write his 2009 autobiography, “Open: An Autobiography.” This year, Moehringer was chosen to co-write Prince Harry’s autobiography.
In the film, we learn, in part, how he got to where he was going. We hear three iterations of “J.R.” and not all are convincingly related. Young J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) as a kid as straight hair while college-aged J.R. (Tye Sheridan) has thick wavy hair. .From my experience, this isn’t the way hair happens. Your experiences may differ. On their own, both actors acquit themselves admirably and the young kid isn’t annoying precocious. There’s also the future J.R. (Ron Livingston) in voiceovers.
Unable to pay rent, J.R.’s mother, Dorothy (Lily Rabe) takes J.R. home to live in her father’s house, Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd), who isn’t too pleased. The year is 1972 and J.R. is nine. Dorothy’s brother and J.R.’s only uncle, Charlie (Ben Affleck) also lives there. The bar in question is called “Dickens” after another Charles. While J.R. listens for “The Voice” (Max Martini) on the radio, that’s the most reliable influence his father Johnny “The Voice” Michaels has. He rarely pays child support and even when he tells J.R. he’ll take him to a baseball game, that doesn’t mean he’ll even show up.
Instead, to set him straight, J.R. has Uncle Charlie who tells him, “I’ll take care of you. I’ll teach you all the male sciences.” He sets him straight on his father, saying there are two rules. “I’m never going to let you win and I’m going to always tell you the truth.” The first truth is: “Your father is a deadbeat.” There are more truths because although Uncle Charlie plays baseball, he tells J.R., “I saw you in the yard playing sports. You’re not very good.” He encourages J.R. to find other things to focus on. When J.R. tells him, he likes to read, and determines he wants to be a writer, Uncle Charlie gives him access to mountains of boos, saying, “You read enough of those, maybe, you could become a writer.”
J.R.’s mother is determined that her son will attend Yale and then go on to become a lawyer, but, this is no spoiler, J.R. will not become a lawyer. A lot of kids go to college and become writers, but not all of them had deadbeat fathers and go on to win a Pulitzer.
The cinematography is warm and soft. I sometimes wished that a filler reflector had been used to cast more light into the faces and highlights into the eyes of the actors. I also wished I had spent more time at the bar with those denizens who become surrogate father figures. Affleck’s portrayal of Charlie is low key, but we never get hints of his own disappointments. That’s okay because the focus is on J.R. and his journey and it’s a pleasant ride.
For those of us who have grown up without fathers, either because they are deadbeats like J.R.’s or because they are dead like mine, it is lovely to think there could be someone as honest, kind and supportive as Ben Affleck’s Uncle Charlie. Heck, even with a living dad–good or bad, who doesn’t need an Uncle Charlie or similarly affectionate aunt? Affleck gives his Uncle Charlie such a glow; it’s a wonderful performance.
When I reflect back on how I became a writer, there was heartbreak and there were many jobs. I didn’t set out to become a writer nor a critic on theater and movies. I admire people who know from the start what they want to be and follow their dream with unwavering focus. That is not how I got here. Like J.R., I wandered and didn’t get the job I dreamed of. God, or fate, had other plans for me and I made mistakes along the ways. Still, as I told an actor I was sitting next to the other day, for writers and actors, every experience can be used somehow. “The Tender Bar” was J.R.’s journey to journalism and writing and a Pulitzer. Maybe meandering isn’t a bad thing. Moehringer knows how to burnish memories and under Clooney’s direction “The Tender Bar” is a hopeful tale for children from single parent homes and for people who might feel a tug in their hearts to be a substitute parent figure.
“The Tender Bar” was given a limited release on 17 December 2021 by Amazon Studios. For the world premiere, the lobby of The Hollywood Roosevelt was made over into a Dickens-like bar, but none of the bartenders resembled Ben Affleck. I didn’t see Affleck but I did see the two J.R.’s (Sheridan and Ranieri). The film expands to more screens on 22 December 2021 and on 7 January 2022 will stream on Amazon Prime Video.