The Tender Bar (2021)
The Tender Bar (2021)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 44 min.

Release Date: December 22nd, 2021 MPAA Rating: R

Director: George Clooney Actors: Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Daniel Ranieri, Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, Max Martini, Rhenzy Feliz, Briana Middleton

 


 

B

eginning in New York in 1973, Mrs. Maguire (Lily Rabe) is forced to move back to her father’s house with her young son JR (Daniel Ranieri) after failing to pay rent for 5 months. Returning to grandpa’s (Christopher Lloyd) home is essentially a failure, implying that mature independence just wasn’t in the cards; but JR doesn’t mind it, as he views the crowded dwelling as a revolving door of relatives and good times – plus, it’s an opportunity to see a lot more of easygoing Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), who substitutes for JR’s absentee dad. Charlie tells it straight, refusing to lie to the kid, while also offering up useful advice and a dose of common sense. “Don’t look to your father to save you.”

With narration by an unseen older version of JR, generating a tone like that of “The Sandlot,” the film proceeds to jump around every so often in the timeline to introduce the twenty-something JR (Tye Sheridan) as he awaits an interview to get into Yale – a goal his mother has all but demanded of him. Throughout JR’s preteen years, he contends with childhood disappointments and fatherless activities, often retreating to The Dickens Bar (named after Charles Dickens) in Long Island, run by Charlie, where a collection of encouraging barflies lend him an undeniable camaraderie and tidbits of their assorted wisdoms. It’s here that JR decides to become a writer.

“The Tender Bar” is based on the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, who recounts a curiously ordinary upbringing full of commonplace routines. There aren’t really any unconventional misadventures lurking about; instead, JR’s youth is one of perplexing ordinariness. Surely something exceptional or traumatically tragic is right around the corner. Yet the longer the picture goes on, the more it feels as if nothing significant is going to happen. An early moment when grandpa attends a father/son breakfast at school is nicely heartwarming (easily the best scene in the film), but interactions with JR’s mother, his real father, and even Uncle Charlie aren’t the sort of events one might expect from a biopic; JR is an uncommonly unremarkable kid, with unremarkable friends and family, and a strikingly unremarkable life.

The story – which is more like a couple of chapters in a young adult’s history, as it only spans a few key moments in his childhood and a handful of happenings in his college years – may be told with a distinct pleasantness, opting for feel-good vibes and fun music (though many scenes boasting catchy tunes seem to cut off abruptly in jarring ways), but it’s hardly outstanding. Milestones are touched upon, chronicling classmates and teachers and partying and girls, but everything is approached with casualness and quietness; the lessons learned and the commentary imparted are incredibly small. Some of it is insightful and inspiring, but most of it is garden-variety at best.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of “The Tender Bar” is its ultimate basis and scope: a memoir from an unknown author spanning such a tiny period of time. It’s never revealed that the writer went on to win a Pulitzer Prize (at a relatively young age in his mid-thirties); instead, it’s downright shocking that anyone would cling to personal accounts from someone who has barely lived a fraction of a lifetime – and someone whose short collection of anecdotes are so utterly devoid of tragedy and profundity. Virtually none of this film is cinematic or worthy of a theatrical adaptation; minimal accomplishments, minor setbacks, and modest positive or negative influences are just not potent enough to make much of a difference – in the context of the story or in the world of moviemaking in general. Much like the real JR’s life so far, this movie is tremendously inconsequential and almost infuriatingly simple.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10