Monday January 24, 2022
Movie Review: The Tender Bar (2021)
I tend to like coming-of-age stories, and even better if they have an uncle figure that shows the kid the ways of the world. Sam Rockwell in “The Way Way Back” was a great recent example. So I was looking forward to this movie.
Nothing at stake
The kid is JR (Daniel Ranieri), all big dark eyes and passive curiosity, who is forced to move into his grandparents’ house with his mother (Lily Rabe), after his father, a radio DJ known as “The Voice” (Max Martini), abandons them in the early 1970s. It’s Manhasset, Long Island, a working class neighborhood, but good working class: loud but not racist; good-natured busting chops rather than ball-busting.
Mom hates the move back—she seems broken and way too self-pitying to care about—while JR loves it. Along with Grandpa and Grandma (Christopher Lloyd and Sondra James), other prodigal children live there: a non-descript aunt, and Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), who owns and runs the titular working class bar, The Dickens, named after Charles, with Dickens’ books lining a top shelf. JR hangs there and the regulars are nice to him. Uncle Charlie teaches him about life. Don’t carry your money like a drunk. Hold doors. Change tires. Keep your shit together.
It’s sweet, but you kind of wonder about Uncle Charlie’s living situation. Doesn’t he have a business? Doesn’t he keep his shit together? Shouldn’t his advice on being a man include “Don’t live with your parents”?
We get mini-dramas. Dad is supposed to take JR to a Mets game but never shows. A school shrink tells JR he has no identity because he’s “Jr.” to a father with no name, so Uncle Charlie takes him down a peg. There’s a father-son lunch at the school so Grandpa dresses up and impresses everyone. “Don't tell anybody I’m a good grandfather,” Grandpa tells JR afterwards. “Everybody will want one.”
That’s a nice line—and it’s great seeing Christopher Lloyd again—but overall there’s not much at stake here. Does JR have friends? Is he bullied? This small, smart kid with big dark eyes shows up in a tough working class town and nothing? Do we even see another kid in the first half of the film?
His mom wants him to go to Harvard or Yale and become a lawyer. Meanwhile, Uncle Charlie is an autodidact who’s got a whole closet stacked with books and keeps pushing him to read. He leans toward Charlie. He creates a family newspaper. He shows promise on the Wordy Gurdy puzzle.
Then he’s a teenager, Tye Sheridan, all full lips and long nose, and he gets into Yale on a scholarship, but even here there’s not much at stake. Despite his working-class background, a lot of shit comes easy to him. He makes friends easy, he gets a beautiful girl, Sidney (Brianna Middleton), easy, he loses her easy, she breaks his heart easy. He graduates, is aimless, Sidney suggests he get a job at The New York Times, and he does. Then he finally has it out with his father, now a drunk in North Carolina. That’s when there’s a little something at stake, because Max Martini just emanates potential violence. In NC, he drinks too much, beats his woman and JR finally stands up to him. He yells at him. And then? That’s it. There’s no fight. The father just walks away. Next we see, he’s arrested. Easy.
In the end, JR decides to move to Manhattan and become a writer, and Uncle Charlie gives him the keys to his beautiful sky-blue 1968 Cadillac Deville—which would seem to be the last thing you’d want in Manhattan. As he drives away, in voiceover (Ron Livingstone), JR muses about how lawyers become lawyers after they go to law school and pass the bar. But writers?
You’re a writer the minute you say you are. Nobody gives you a diploma. You have to prove it—at least to yourself.
Another movie romantic about writers from an industry that never was.
“The Tender Bar” is based on a popular memoir by J.R. Moehringer but the movie feels like someone read the book and was recounting bits back to us. It’s all surface. I cared a little about the kid, not much about the young adult, not at all about the mom. Affleck is good but he’s not Sam Rockwell in “The Way Way Back.” Whatever digs into you and makes you care about characters isn’t here.
Certain anachronisms jarred. “Do puzzles, and you don’t get Alzheimer’s,” Uncle Charlie declares in the Wordy Gurdy scene, and I’m like “Did people talk much about Alzheimer’s in the mid-1970s? And its connection with puzzles?” (They didn’t.) JR is off for Yale, class of ’86, which makes this 1982, and he’s got a Farrah Fawcett poster on his wall? And Sidney has one of Leif Garrett? Uncle Charlie is Uncle Charlie and no one references “My Three Sons”?
As a director, George Clooney started out with a bang: “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Then he did “Leatherheads,” “The Ides of March,” “The Monuments Men.” Blah, blah and blah. All of those films seemed like good ideas, too.