Movie review: The Tender Bar

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Life has a way, especially in the midst of a neverending pandemic, of making you feel as if no good can ever come from it.

Grinding mercilessly and ceaselessly on, it makes demand after demand without once feeling as if it giving anything of much value back ; it is, of course, but caught up in the worst of if, we can miss all the good stuff that is bundled up with the less then stellar parts.

Thank goodness then that we have the feel-good wonder of The Tender Bar, a George Clooney-directed film based on the memoir of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer J. R. Moehringer which beautifully evokes the idea that life might be tough but there is goodness and, love and optimism, and a primal, familial sense of belonging if we just look for it.

That might sound trite but The Tender Bar is anything but, keeping its narrative eye firmly on the fact that life can be difficult as hell and it’s easy to forget the good things you have now or are wishing for; true, nothing truly bad happens to anyone in the film but nonetheless, it doesn’t portray the life of young JR (Daniel Ranieri as JR the boy / Tye Sheridan as twenty-something JR Maguire), which stands for nothing, a recurrent joke in the movie, as a bed of roses into which he falls over and over.

A quietly-accepting 11-year-old boy who seems to accept a great deal of stuff without too much trauma, JR (no dots, thank you) goes back to live with his mother’s (Lily Rabe) family on Long Island when his deadbeat dad (Max Martini), a radio announcer often simply referred to as “The Voice” – JR barely sees him and his infrequent contact usually comes via phone calls – once again defaults on his child support payments, leaving the “Two Musketeers”, as his mum calls them, high and dry.

His mother feels like she has manifestly failed at life, her return to her blunt and seemingly uncaring father, played with rascally delight by Christopher Lloyd (who is sadly underused in the role), and her quiet, somewhat subservient but caring mother (Sondra James in another underdone part), an admission that she has not succeeded at making something of her life.

While she licks her wounds and works out how to remake her life in a way she can live with, JR gets close to his buoyantly honest Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), a well-read man who has named his working class bar after Charles Dickens (The Dickens) and who becomes the father figure JR has never really had.

Quirkily to the point and dispensing advice that sounds ephemeral at first but is actually pretty wise, Charlie is the sort of uncle every boy needs, present father figure or not, because he’s protective and nurturing but also set apart enough from being a parental figure, that he can get away with stuff not really opening to parents.

As we march through the years with JR and Uncle Charlie – the film is roughly divided between 1973 when JR is grappling with life from an 11-yer-old’s uninformed perspective, and 1986 where his mother’s long-held wish that he escape Long Island and go to Yale to become a lawyer looks like coming to pass, The Tender Bar is one of those slowly-unfurling, charmingly nuanced coming-of-age tales that brings home the fact that the very best families are often the ones that look the most dysfunctional on the outside.

Dig down though, as JR does in his deep and sustainably nurturing relationship with Uncle Charlie, and you realise just how much support and love is there for the taking; it’s not immediately obvious, and comes with some rough edges and odd expressions of intimacy, but it’s there and it’s the difference between life going down the toilet and actually amounting to and meaning something.

While not an entirely perfect film – is there such a thing? I suspect not but that’s okay because life is rarely perfect either – with the second half not quite as compelling as the first but only by a small margin, and it’s lack of big dramatic moments, which largely works for it, leading to a sense of no arresting punctuation moments in the narrative, The Tender Bar draws a great deal of its watchability from some very fine performances.

Affleck and newcomer Ranieri are the standouts, their warm rapport and easy interchanges the stuff of which emotionally rich films like The Tender Bar are made, a delight at every turn of the story which relies very much on Uncle Charlie standing in the way of a host of terrible things that could come back to hurt his sweet nephew.

Their relationship is the beating heart of a film which doesn’t use everyone well – Lloyd, Rabe and James have their moments to shine and make their mark but could’ve been so much more if the movie had adopted more of an ensemble look and feel – but which nevertheless takes the time to let the characters drive the story rather than employing melodramatic narrative moments that simply don’t ring true.

So profoundly good, warm, funny and poignant is the chemistry between Affleck and Ranieri as uncle and nephew that even the supporting characters such as the gang from Charlie’s bar, come with a vivid life of their own and help bring to life how much better Charlie is in the bosom of his eccentrically loving family whose value JR never loses sight of it, telling his mother, who’s a sceptic, that Long Island will always be home.

The Tender Bar is a quiet, smart, emotionally resonant indie gem of a film which quietly bursts with hope and possibility and the chance that good things could happen all while being blatantly honest about the fact that the world is oft cruel, and life is tough; it is very much like life, the good, the bad and the in-in-between a love letter to books, writing, family and belonging that delivers a grounded feel good jab of hope right when we all need it the most.

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