THE TENDER BAR (2021) is… well, a tender drama.
Directed by George Clooney, THE TENDER BAR, now available on Prime Video after a theatrical release in December, tells the story of a young man who as a boy idolized and looked up to his uncle, played here by Ben Affleck, and rightly so, because Uncle Charlie, who’s a bartender, is there for his nephew throughout his life.
The movie opens in 1973 with nine-year-old JR (Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (Lily Rabe) returning to live with his grandfather (Christopher Lloyd) in the house his mom grew up in, and they’re doing this because things have not worked out for his mom. As JR explains in a voice over, his mom has had a very tough life, made worse by the fact that his father (Max Martini), who’s now a famous radio deejay, walked out on them and left them with nothing. While his mom is sad and depressed about having to move back in with her parents, JR is overjoyed, because it’s a home where all his cousins and aunts congregate, so he’s surrounded by family every day, and it’s also the house where his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) lives.
JR looks up to and worships his uncle, and it’s hard for him not to, because the guy cares for him and is always there for his nephew. Charlie is a bartender, but he’s also an incredibly well-read and self-taught bartender, and so when JR tells his uncle he wants to be a writer some day, Charlie tasks him with reading every book he can get his hands on. JR is also a frequent visitor at the bar, and he enjoys a friendship and camaraderie with the regulars there. And while Charlie is well read, his philosophy of life and advice to JR, while commendable, is certainly a bit dated for the here and now in 2022.
But what makes the story in THE TENDER BAR work so well is in spite of all the hardships JR’s family endures, they are there for each other and pull for each other. The only one who isn’t there is JR’s father, who turns out to be quite the low life of a person. But not Uncle Charlie, who is always there for his nephew.
The second half of the movie jumps forward nine years to 1982 and follows a college bound JR (Tye Sheridan) adjusting to college life while questioning his future, all the while still seeking friendship and advice from his caring uncle. And while the first half of the movie works better than the second, the script by William Monahan, based on the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, remains sharp throughout and offers plenty of spot-on insights, like JR’s musings about becoming a writer, for example. He comments that to become a lawyer, you go to law school, and your degree declares you a lawyer, and all professions work like this, except a writer. No one declares a person a writer. A writer has to go out and do it, prove themselves, become published, and then they’re a writer.
I really enjoyed THE TENDER BAR, although I have to admit a personal bias to this story. The character of JR in the movie is my age, and I easily identified to the look and feel of this story in 1973, especially the scenes of his crowded grandparents’ house, as I also grew up with a grandparents’ home that was a bustling hub of relatives and was the place I loved being at. Similarly, I went to college the same years as JR, from 1982-1986, and so the look of these scenes also resonated.
But more importantly, I also grew up with an uncle like Charlie, who I looked up to and who was always there for me during these years. No, he wasn’t a bartender, but he was a supportive fan of my wanting to be a writer and shared my love for horror. So, there’s definitely a personal connection for me to the story told in THE TENDER BAR.
But even without this connection, THE TENDER BAR works.
George Clooney’s direction is spot-on. He captures the periods of both the 1970s and 1980s perfectly, and he also allows the story to be told without distractions. It’s told through the eyes of JR, both as a young boy and as a college student, and the film is consistent with this point of view. Like JR, the audience feels the caring from Uncle Charlie and the rest of JR’s family. As I said, this one really is a tender story. While Clooney is known in the business more as an actor than a director, he has directed a handful of movies. I didn’t see his previous directorial effort, THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020), but I did see THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014), his World War II adventure, which I really liked. That being said, I enjoyed THE TENDER BAR even more than THE MONUMENTS MEN.
Clooney also just captures certain sequences so perfectly. The bowling sequence, for example, looks and feels exactly the way bowling alleys looked and felt in 1973, right down to what it felt like to be there as nine-year-old boy bowling with your uncle and his friends.
The best part of THE TENDER BAR however is Ben Affleck’s performance as Uncle Charlie. He exudes sincerity and straightforwardness. As JR says, everyone needs to have an Uncle Charlie in their lives, and Affleck’s performance makes that easy to see. He also is very comfortable playing Charlie during two different decades. It’s been a while since I’ve really enjoyed a Ben Affleck performance, probably going back to THE ACCOUNTANT (2016). This is probably Affleck’s best work in years, going back to ARGO (2012). I like Affleck a lot and hope he continues to have more roles like this.
Almost matching Affleck is young Daniel Ranieri as the nine-year-old JR. He’s fabulous, and I wish the story had been all about 1973, because then he would have been in the entire movie.
Tye Sheridan plays JR when he goes off to college, and Sheridan is fine, but this part of the story just wasn’t as interesting or as compelling as the first half. Plus, his infatuation with a fellow classmate who he wants to date and marry, is a head-scratcher because she treats him awfully throughout.
I really liked Lily Rabe as JR’s mom, and Max Martine makes for a brutal, arrogant, and thoroughly unpleasant deadbeat dad, who stands out in this story because he’s the one person in JR’s life who is a genuinely awful person.
And Christopher Lloyd delivers a fine supporting performance as Grandpa, enjoying many fine scene-stealing moments. The sequence where he agrees to go with JR to school to celebrate “dad’s day” is heartwarming.
William Monahan’s screenplay is exceptional. The writing is tight throughout, the situations realistic and agreeable, and much of the dialogue sharp and humorous. Monahan also wrote the screenplay to THE DEPARTED (2006), one of my favorite Martin Scorsese movies, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson. The one knock on the script is other than JR’s mom, there really isn’t a strong female character in the movie. THE TENDER BAR is definitely a male-oriented story. But since it is the story of a young boy and his relationship with his uncle, I didn’t have a problem with this.
THE TENDER BAR is a coming-of-age movie that tells the inspiring and touching story of the relationship between a young man and his uncle. With all that is going on in the world today, it was nice to watch a movie about people who truly looked out for one another and cared for each other.
So, stop by Charlie’s bar after work and hang out for a bit, feel the camaraderie and friendship, and watch your favorite bartender always be there for his bright young nephew.