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 Johnny is on the air at his radio job. 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.

Review: ‘Paper Spiders,’ starring Lili Taylor, Stefania LaVie Owen, Ian Nelson and Peyton List

May 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lili Taylor and Stefania LaVie Owen in “Paper Spiders” (Photo courtesy of Entertainment Squad)

“Paper Spiders”

Directed by Inon Shampanier

Culture Representation: Taking place in Syracuse, New York, and briefly in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “Paper Spiders” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A teenager and her widowed mother have conflicts because of the mother’s mental illness.

Culture Audience: “Paper Spiders” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching well-acted dramas about mother-daughter relationships and how mental illness can affect people.

Ian Nelson and Stefania LaVie Owen in “Paper Spiders” (Photo courtesy of Entertainment Squad)

Much like the mother-daughter relationship that’s at the center of the movie, “Paper Spiders” takes viewers on an emotional roller coaster ride that can be gripping, unpredictable and harrowing—sometimes all at once. It’s a compelling drama about how mental illness, if left untreated, can poison relationships directly and indirectly. And it’s an authentic portrayal of the denials and dilemmas that loved ones of mentally ill people go through in seeking treatment for a mentally ill person who doesn’t want to get any professional help.

People who don’t know anything about “Paper Spiders” might think it’s just another movie about a teenage girl who has conflicts with her mother over dating or wanting to be more independent. It’s not that type of movie. In “Paper Spiders,” the teenage daughter is the one who increasingly becomes the more responsible, emotionally mature person in the close mother-daughter relationship that starts to unravel because of the mother’s mental illness.

“Paper Spiders” was directed by Inon Shampanier, who wrote the movie’s screenplay with his wife Natalie Shampanier, who works as a therapist. The film is inspired by Natalie’s real-life experiences with having a mother with persecutory delusional disorder—a mental illness in which a person has paranoid delusions about being targeted for attacks and harassment. Although the film’s prom night sequence has some heavy melodramatics that look very fabricated for a movie, “Paper Spider” benefits greatly from exemplary performances from the cast members.

Lili Taylor and Stefania LaVie Owen are the standouts as widow Dawn Leedy and her daughter Melanie Leedy, who go through a series of ups and downs that test not only their love for each other but also their well-beings as individuals. When this story begins, Dawn’s husband/Melanie’s father Charles Leedy has been dead for about two years. (He had a heart attack while in a swimming pool.) But during the course of the story, it’s revealed that Dawn has been struggling with her mental health for years before her husband died.

The movie’s opening scene shows Dawn and Melanie having a close bonding experience, as they’re on a guided tour of the University of Southern California (USC) campus in Los Angeles. Melanie, who is an only child, is in her last year of high school and is deciding which university she will be attending after she graduates from high school. Because she’s an excellent student, Melanie has applied to get a full scholarship to USC, which seems to be her first-choice university. USC also happens to be Charles Leedy’s alma mater.

Dawn and Melanie live in Syracuse, New York, and Dawn expresses some trepidation about Melanie possibly moving to the other side of the United States to attend college. As they tour the USC campus, Melanie says that she probably won’t get the scholarship. Dawn tells Melanie that it would be much easier if Melanie went to a university that was close to where they live in New York.

Dawn says half-jokingly, “Why did I push you to get straight A’s? If I only knew I was pushing you straght out the door.” Melanie replies, “It’s just college, Mom.” Dawn then says, “What am I going to do when you’re gone?” Melanie responds, “I’m not dying.”

On the surface, their banter seems like a typical mother worrying about having “empty nest” syndrome and a daughter showing mild exasperation over her mother’s worries. But there’s a lot of truth in Dawn’s fear of Melanie “abandoning” Dawn to start her own life. For now, things seem to be going well in their relationship. Melanie is an empathetic and respectful person who’s more likely than not to help someone who’s in need.

But the cracks start to show in Dawn’s state of mind when she and Melanie get home from their USC trip. They live in a two-story house on a quiet street. Dawn fears and despises a middle-aged neighbor on their street named Brody Jensen (played by James W. Meagher), but he’s not a figment of Dawn’s imagination. Brody has a wife (played by Jennifer Cody) and a young daughter, who are briefly seen in the movie. And as far as Dawn is concerned, Brody is the neighbor from hell.

As soon as Dawn and Melanie are at home, Dawn starts ranting about all the things that Brody has been doing to do harass Dawn. First, Dawn says that Brody rammed his car into a tree on Dawn’s front yard and left a huge dent in the tree. She goes over to his house to confront him about it. And when Dawn comes back, she’s even more infuriated because she tells Melanie that Brody told her to “fuck off.” Viewers never see this encounter, which is the first clue that Brody’s “persecution” of Dawn could be something she’s hallucinating.

On another day, Dawn and Melanie are at home, when they both hear the sound of a small object hitting a front window of their house. Dawn immediately says that it’s Brody throwing rocks. Melanie thinks it’s just an acorn that fell from a nearby tree. And sure enough, when Melanie looks outside the window, there’s nothing there but some acorns (and no rocks) on the ground.

One of the questions that viewers might have when watching “Paper Spiders” is, “How come Melanie, who’s obviously very intelligent, didn’t notice all these signs of mental illness before?” It’s mentioned in the movie that Dawn’s mental deterioration got worse after Dawn’s husband died, possibly because of Dawn’s grief and loneliness. It’s also hinted that Dawn’s paranoid delusions escalated partially because of her fear of living alone when Melanie goes away to college.

There are no flashbacks of what Melanie’s father was like when he was alive. However, based on how Melanie’s father is described by people in the movie, there’s some nuanced subtext that Melanie’s father probably protected Melanie from a lot of unpleasant details about Dawn’s mental illness. And because Melanie is the type of student to be preoccupied with school, she might not have been as attuned to Dawn’s problems when her father was still alive.

But now that Melanie and Dawn are the only two people in the house, these problems have become impossible to ignore. Dawn soon becomes convinced that Brody is trying to break into the house and assault her and Melanie when they’re asleep. After one such alleged “attempted break-in,” where Dawn woke Melanie up in a panic, Dawn calls the police and hystericaly demands that the police arrest Brody.

However, nothing happens to Brody because he and his wife say that he was home the entire time that Dawn accused him of trespassing, and there’s no proof that there was a break-in or that Brody was ever on Dawn’s property. On another day, Dawn begins to hear noises on the roof and immediately thinks that Brody is sneaking around on top of the house. She enlists Melanie to help her catch Brody in the act, so that they have enough “proof” to get him arrested.

At first, Melanie gives Dawn the benefit of the doubt. But she soon figures out that Dawn is imagining all of these harassment incidents. Dawn even has a restraining order against Brody. The tipping point for Melanie is when Dawn finds a bee in the kitchen, and Dawn insists to Melanie that Brody planted the bee there.

Dawn’s paranoia increases, so she hires a private investigator named Gary (played by Max Casella) to install surveillance equipment inside and outside the house. And Dawn’s mental illness starts to affect her job as a paralegal, when she begs her attorney boss Bill Hoffman (played by David Rasche), who owns a small law firm, to represent her in the lawsuit that she wants to file against Brody.

An increasingly worried Melanie goes to her school’s guidance counselor Mr. Wessler (played Michael Cyril Creighton) more than once for help. He’s not a licensed therapist, and the movie pokes fun at his obvious ineptitude. He makes awkward small talk and is ill-equipped to deal with any student who might come to him about serious mental health issues. As Melanie describes her mother’s disturbing behavior to him, Mr. Wessler doesn’t really know how to respond.

And so, during their first meeting, Mr. Wessler literally has to look up Dawn’s behavior in a psychology textbook that he keeps nearby for reference. And that’s when Melanie first hears that her mother probably has persecutory delusional disorder. Mr. Wessler warns Melanie that he can’t officially diagnose someone he hasn’t met. He advises Melanie to try to ease Dawn’s anxiety by getting Dawn involved in more social activities.

Although the scenes with Mr. Wessler are meant to be satirical or played for a little bit of comic relief, they’re representative of the lack of proper resources that people like Melanie might have to deal with when trying to get help for a mentally ill loved one. When Melanie suggests to Dawn that she speak to a therapist or counselor about Dawn’s problems, Dawn gets very defensive and angry. Dawn doesn’t think that anything is mentally wrong with her, and she accuses Melanie of not being on her side.

How can you convince someone to get help for a mental illness if that person denies that there’s even a mental health problem? That’s the crux of much of the drama in “Paper Spiders,” whose title comes from spider figures made from paper cups that are seen toward the end of the film. Viewers will see in which context these paper spiders were made.

Melanie’s closest friend at school is a flirtatious extrovert named Lacy (played by Peyton List), who isn’t much help when it comes to Melanie’s biggest problems. Lacy is aware that Dawn is “eccentric,” but she doesn’t know that Dawn has been having paranoid delusions. And maybe Melanie hasn’t told Lacy because Melanie knows that Lacy’s top priority in life is hooking up with boys.

While all of this intense family drama is going on in Melanie’s life, Melanie unexpectedly finds possible love with a rebellious classmate named Daniel (played by Ian Nelson), who pursues her relentlessly until she agrees to go out on a date with him. Daniel is the type of guy who likes to dress all in black and has already been to rehab for alcoholism. It’s a classic case of a “bad boy/good girl” coupling, but in this movie, it isn’t too cliché.

As Melanie and Daniel slowly get to know one another, he shows a vulnerable side underneath his cocky exterior. Daniel comes from a family that provides him with material wealth but not enough emotional support. Daniel opens up to Melanie about how his mother is a neglectful alcoholic, and his workaholic father is rarely home and thinks that he can buy Daniel’s love with gifts.

Melanie knows that Daniel is emotionally damaged, but she doesn’t do the stereotypical thing of trying to “fix” or “tame” him. Instead, she tries to understand him and help him in a non-judgmental way. Even though he’s been to rehab, Daniel still drinks alcohol, and Melanie doesn’t try to stop him. However, she does express concern that his idea of drinking “in moderation” won’t work for him because he’s been to rehab for alcohol addiction. Viewers will find out how far this relationship goes, considering all the other things that Melanie is dealing with in her life.

“Paper Spiders” isn’t all gloom and doom. Before Dawn goes on a downward spiral, Melanie signed her up on an online dating site and matched her with a nice-guy engineer named Howard (played by Tom Papa), a divorcé whose wife left him for their financial advisor after 21 years of marriage. The movie has a “cutesy” moment when Dawn’s first date with Howard is on the same night as Melanie’s first date with Daniel. Howard and Daniel both end up arriving at Dawn and Melanie’s home at the same time.

The movie also shows some nice moments of Dawn and Melanie spending time together, such as on the plane back from Los Angeles, when they do work on a crossword puzzle together. And there’s another pleasanatly authentic scene of Melanie and Dawn shopping for clothes together in anticipation for their dates with Daniel and Howard. In another scene, Dawn generously gives her prom dress (which doesn’t look outdated) to Melanie for Melanie’s own prom.

The night of Melanie’s prom is a pivotal point in the story, but it’s also when the movie goes a little over-the-top in looking like a teen soap opera. However, what happens after the prom are some of the harsh adult realities that Melanie has to face, as she has to make difficult decisions about her future. In some ways, Melanie wants her independence and knows that there’s a limit to how much she can help her mother. In other ways, Melanie knows that because she’s the only family that Dawn has in the world, how Melanie handles the situation could deeply affect the future for herself and her mother.

What “Paper Spiders” does so well is present these real-life issues with a rare balance of rawness and sensitivity—and not in a preachy or trite way. What Melanie decides to do might not work for all people or all families. However, the movie shows, with a great deal of accuracy, the sense of isolation, shame and confusion that someone in Melanie’s situation faces when a loved one seems to become a different person while under the grip of mental illness. Thanks to Taylor’s and Owen’s memorable and meaningful performances, “Paper Spiders” is a movie that brings humane depth to these problems that can’t easily be solved by looking them up in a psychology book.

Entertainment Squad released “Paper Spiders” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 7, 2021. The movie’s DVD release date is on June 22, 2021.

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