Review: ‘The Tender Bar,’ starring Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Christopher Lloyd and Lily Rabe

December 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan in “The Tender Bar” (Photo by Claire Folger/Amazon Content Services)

“The Tender Bar”

Directed by George Clooney

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1972 to the mid-1980s, in Manhasset, New York; New Haven, Connecticut; and New York City, the dramatic film “The Tender Bar” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Based on true events, a boy raised by his single mother in a working-class household is influenced by her brother to take risks in life, as the boy grows up and goes on to attend Yale University and work as a journalist for The New York Times.

Culture Audience: “The Tender Bar” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ben Affleck, director George Clooney (who does not appear in the movie) and predictable coming-of-age stories.

Lily Rabe and Daniel Ranieri in “The Tender Bar” (Photo by Claire Folger/Amazon Content Services)

Even though Ben Affleck gets top billing in the dramatic film “The Tender Bar,” he’s not in the movie as much the “The Tender Bar” trailers and other marketing materials would leave audiences to believe. And the movie isn’t as compelling as it first seems. Although the acting in “The Tender Bar” is very good, ultimately the direction by George Clooney and screenwriting by William Monaghan are underwhelming, considering that Clooney and Monaghan are both Oscar-winning filmmakers. There’s a very “been there, done that” tone to this coming-of-age story that retreads a lot of familiar territory about young men who are aspiring writers.

“The Tender Bar” is based on J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir of the same name. It’s yet another story about someone from suburban, working-class roots who dreams of moving to a big city to achieve fame and possibly fortune in a chosen profession. In a movie like this, the eager young person predictably has a mentor who is a tough taskmaster or a mentor who is a rule-breaking free spirit. The mentor in the “The Tender Bar” is the latter stereotype.

A major problem with the movie version of “The Tender Bar” is that there are big gaps in the life that is presented of the movie’s protagonist, whose name is J.R. McGuire. A running “joke” in the movie is that J.R. keeps having to answer this question: “What does ‘J.R.’ stand for?” It’s a question he can’t really answer because, as far as he knows, J.R. is his first name on his birth certificate. In the movie, J.R. is depicted as two very different personalities (as a child and as a young adult) that are such a contrast to each other, it throws the movie off-balance, and the movie never really recovers from it.

In the first third of the movie, it’s 1972, and J.R. is a 9-year-old boy (played by Daniel Ranieri), who has moved with his single mother (played by Lily Rabe) back into her parents’ cramped house in Manhasset, New York. J.R.’s mother is having financial problems and can’t afford to live anywhere else. J.R.’s mother is embarrassed that she’s had to move back in with her parents (played by Christopher Lloyd and Sondra James), who all do not have names in the movie.

J.R.’s father abandoned J.R.’s mother and J.R. when J.R. was too young to remember him. This deadbeat dad is a radio DJ named Johnny Michaels (played by Max Martini), who has the on-air nickname The Voice. Even though Johnny still lives in the area, he hasn’t been in J.R.’s life, and J.R.’s mother wants to keep it that way. However, J.R. still ardently listens to his father on the radio, which is J.R.’s way of trying to get to know his father. In the movie, J.R.’s childhood is depicted from when he was 9 to about 11 years old.

J.R. is a bubbly and inquisitive child who loves to read. From a child’s perspective, he doesn’t see the move to his grandparents’ home as depressing. Just the opposite: J.R. meets a lot of relatives (aunts, uncles and cousins), and he’s happy to feel like he’s part of this big family. An unseen, middle-aged adult J.R. (voiced by Ron Livingston) says in hindsight voiceover narration how he felt being around so many family members: “I loved it.”

J.R.’s mother, who obviously wanted to move away from her family, isn’t happy about this change in her living situation. She thinks of herself as a “failure” for having to move back in with her parents. J.R.’s mother tries to hide her sadness from J.R, but he’s too smart not to notice.

There are underlying reasons why she was so reluctant to move back in with her parents, but they are only alluded to in the movie. She hints at those reasons when she tells J.R. about her curmudgeonly father: “Grandpa resents taking care of the family.” As for J.R.’s father, she comments: “Your father has never taken care of anyone at all.”

There are a few tender family moments as J.R.’s mother and her father take some steps in mending their fractured relationship. J.R. and his grandfather also have some moments together where they strengthen their family bond. However, the movie wants to focus on another adult member of the family to be the main catalyst for what happens to J.R.

One of the family members J.R. meets during this stressful time in his mother’s life is her older brother Charlie (played by Affleck), a bachelor who owns a local pub called Dickens. Charlie is not very educated, but he knows a lot about hard knocks in life, and he ends up being J.R.’s mentor/confidant. As an adult J.R. says in a narration voiceover: “When you’re 11 years old, you want [someone like] an Uncle Charlie.”

Meanwhile, J.R.’s father Johnny tries to get to know J.R. by promising to take him to a baseball game. But those plans go awry when J.R.’s mother has Johnny arrested for non-payment of child support while he’s on the air. After getting out on bail, Johnny flees the state and threatens to kill J.R.’s mother during a menacing phone call. It’s the first sign that Johnny has a very mean streak and a violent mentality.

During this turmoil, Charlie becomes closer to J.R. and becomes almost like a father figure to him. The name of the Dickens bar is inspired by author Charles Dickens, so the bar is decorated with books on shelves, just like a library. Even though he’s underage, J.R. is allowed inside the bar. He’s so fascinated with the books, J.R. asks Charlie if he can read them. Charlie says yes. And an adult J.R. says in a narrator voiceover, “In that moment, I wanted to be a writer.”

J.R.’s mother would prefer that J.R. become a lawyer. She also drills into him that she really wants J.R. to graduate from Yale University or Harvard University. The family can’t afford to pay for tuition to an elite university, so J.R. hopes to get an academic scholarship. “The Tender Bar” doesn’t bother to show J.R. doing a lot of studying because the point of the movie is that J.R. got his real childhood education about life from his uncle Charlie.

“The Tender Bar” has a meandering quality to it where nothing particularly interesting happens during Charlie’s “mentorship” of J.R. As a child, J.R. tags along with hard-drinking Charlie and some of his party pals, who have nicknames like Bobo (played by Michael Braun) and Chief (played by Max Casella), where the adults get up to mostly harmless drunken mischief. Charlie also teaches J.R. how to drive long before J.R. is legally able to do so.

Charlie, who’s also a bartender at Dickens, lets J.R. watch Charlie do his job, where J.R. observes how adults act in a bar. Charlie doesn’t treat J.R. like a silly kid who’s a nuisance but as a person who needs guidance on some of life’s realities. At one point, Johnny comes back into the picture, and he has a violent confrontation with Charlie.

The rest of the movie then abruptly switches to J.R.’s life when he was in his late teens and early 20s. It’s here where “The Tender Bar” really starts to drag. Gone is the cheerful tyke who radiated positive energy and openness. The young adult J.R. (played by Tye Sheridan) is mopey, angsty, and has lost a lot of his charming curiosity about life.

This big change in J.R.’s personality is never explained. It’s more than just the normal coming-of-age growing pains. A lot of it has to do with the casting of Sheridan as the young adult J.R., because Sheridan tends to play brooding characters. That’s not to say that J.R. should be an eternally upbeat character, but the zest for life that he had as a child seems to have dwindled by the time the movie gets to J.R.’s life in his late teens and early 20s.

J.R. is only sure about one thing in his life: He wants to be a writer. Apparently, he thinks the only way to be a good writer is to be moody and miserable. It’s not really spoiler information to reveal that J.R. gets into Yale University, because about one-third of the movie (in the middle of the film) is about his time at Yale, where he ends up graduating in 1986. During his freshman year at Yale, J.R. has two roommates—Wesley (played by Rhenzy Feliz) and Jimmy (played by Ivan Leung)—who are bland characters that don’t add much to the story.

J.R. becomes immediately smitten with another Yale student named Sydney Lawson (played by Briana Middleton), who plays mind games with him during their entire on-again/off-again relationship. J.R. falls in love with Sydney, who treats J.R. as a “side piece,” because she always has a more serious, committed relationship with another boyfriend the entire time that she and J.R. are seeing each other. The movie wastes a lot of time on J.R. and Sydney’s topsy-turvy relationship, which ends up exactly how you think it’s going to end up.

There’s an intentionally awkward sequence where Sydney invites J.R. to meet her well-to-do and highly educated parents at the Lawson family home. (Mark Boyett plays Sydney’s father, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine plays Sydney’s mother, who don’t have first names in the movie.) The only purpose of this section of the movie is to show that J.R. feels self-conscious about his working-class background and that Sydney used this meeting as a test to see if J.R. could really fit into her world. It’s a world where people have a tendency to look down on working-class people from single-parent households.

Where exactly is Charlie during all of this drama in J.R.’s love life? Charlie only comes back into the picture whenever J.R. goes back to Manhasset to visit. And because Charlie is not an intellectual type who can skillfully guide J.R. on his writing ambitions, Charlie’s mentorship seems to be less impactful on J.R. as an adult, compared to when J.R. was a child. During the entire story, Charlie seems incapable of having a loving and committed relationship that lasts, so he’s not exactly the best person to give advice to J.R. about J.R.’s love life.

As much as Sydney manipulates J.R. by toying with his heart, the one sincerely good influence that she has on J.R. is that Sydney is the one (not Charlie) who encourages J.R. to apply for a job at The New York Times. J.R. is a talented writer, but he’s often plagued by self-doubt over his abilities. The rest of the movie is a bit of a slog in showing J.R.’s experience as a junior-level writer at The New York Times, while he still struggles with his love for Sydney.

“The Tender Bar” had potential to be a lot more engaging if it didn’t take up so much time on J.R.’s repetitive and predictable love affair with Sydney, the person who preoccupies most of his thoughts during his young-adult life that’s shown in the movie. The relationship between J.R. and his uncle Charlie, which is being marketed as the heart of “The Tender Bar,” is too often sidelined by showing what happens when J.R. goes to Yale and gets caught up in a bad romance.

It’s also a shaky premise for this movie to even put Charlie up on a “role model” pedestal in the first place, because he certainly doesn’t emotionally mature much during the approximately 14 or 15 years that this movie takes place. When J.R. moves away to go to Yale, Charlie is a drunk who acts like he’s a party guy in his 20s. When J.R. goes back to visit, middle-aged Charlie still has essentially the same lifestyle and mindset. If Charlie has any talent at anything, the movie never reveals what it is.

And that leaves audiences wondering, “What’s so great about Charlie?” It’s nice that Charlie provided emotional support for J.R. when J.R. needed a father figure as a kid. But by the time the movie ends, it’s obvious that between Charlie and J.R., only one of them has become a “grown-up” by gaining true wisdom from life experiences and by turning a talent into a career.

Amazon Studios released “The Tender Bar” in select U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021, with a wider release on December 22, 2021. Prime Video will premiere “The Tender Bar” on January 7, 2022.