‘The Tender Bar’ serves some lovely performances but only the Cliff Notes of a worthy story

“The Tender Bar” (2021) – “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” – “Cheers” Theme Song, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart-Angelo

For J.R. (Daniel Ranieri, Tye Sheridan), that place is The Dickens Bar, his Uncle Charlie’s (Ben Affleck) modest but busy and beloved pub.  When we first meet J.R., he’s in elementary school, but Charlie doesn’t serve him alcohol at such a young age.  Instead, J.R. receives plenty of root beers and, more importantly, advice.  His thoughtful uncle encourages the lad to read, pursue his passion (writing), and he also gives dating tips. 

Charlie, in his 30s or 40s, has his issues – like gambling setbacks and still living with his mom (Sondra James) and dad (Christopher Lloyd) – but he’s awfully kind to – and protective of – J.R. 

Since the young man’s father (Max Martini) isn’t usually in the picture – and trust me, no one wants him to be – Charlie helps fill the parental gap with supportive words and old-school pick-yourself-up mantras. 

Everyone should have an Uncle Charlie.

Director George Clooney adapts “The Tender Bar” from J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir of the same name, and the film covers the author’s experiences from childhood to young adulthood.  Clooney’s film offers memorable personalities, like J.R.’s mom (Lily Rabe), grandpa (Lloyd), college girlfriend (Briana Middleton), and absent father (Martini).  However, we get small snippets of others that we – quite frankly – don’t see enough. 

For instance, Grandma may have spoken one line in the entire film.  Pub regulars played by Max Casella and Matthew Delamater frequent The Dickens Bar, but we only get occasional glimpses.  Chief (Casella) – after a couple of cocktails – succinctly states the Magna Carta’s importance to J.R. and his friend Wesley (Rhenzy Feliz), and we see him at a bowling alley get together and a few flashes in the background, but that’s it.

J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) and Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck)

Indeed, Charlie and his buds must have plenty of hilarious adventures and missteps with J.R. to showcase on the big screen.  Well, we enjoy their drive to the beach as Charlie packs them in his Cadillac convertible.  Unfortunately, this joyous jaunt occurs during the end credits with Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” blasting on the theatre speakers.  No doubt, this critic enjoys that song, but it’d be nice to hear the banter along the way.

Look, “The Tender Bar” is a pleasant coming-of-age film. (It’s rated R because of a gratuitous sex scene and the frequent use of one particular word that forcibly pushes the Motion Picture Association of America away from PG-13.) 

The problem is that the movie covers too many ages in just 106 minutes, namely one too many. Screenwriter William Monahan has the unenviable task of baking an entire person’s memoir into a 1-hour 46-minute film.  He features J.R. as a child (Ranieri) and then a high schooler/college student/young journalist (Sheridan).  In doing so, the on-screen events leapfrog from memory to memory at a swift pace to embrace J.R.’s passage from age 10 to roughly 23. 

No doubt, the film has some genuine moments, like Grandpa taking J.R. to a Father and Son Breakfast, Mom’s heart-to-heart about success, and Charlie chewing out the school’s psychologist.  Affleck is flat-out terrific in every single on-screen moment, as Charlie provides his nephew with continuous counsel.  These scenes are insightful and glorious.  A 10-year-old needs guidance, and that’s what Charlie, Mom, and Grandpa provide.

Mom (Lily Rabe) and J.R. (Ranieri)

However, J.R. needs to set aside conversing about life and live it, at least for a little while on-screen.  Other than the aforementioned bowling trip, young J.R. is mostly listening.  In fact, young J.R. writes up a newspaper called “The Family Gazette”, but we don’t see him work on it other than five seconds on a typewriter.   

Around the film’s 40-minute mark, Sheridan takes the full reins as J.R.  He goes to college (but this review will not reveal which university), meets new roommates, gets an on-again-off-again girlfriend, graduates, and lands a job as a reporter (on a trial basis). 

J.R. converses with key players, but the said events feel like a laundry list.

For example, J.R. connects with brand-new college roommates – Wesley and Jimmy (Ivan Leung) – in the dorms, and Wesley says, “Let’s get f***** up.” 

In the next scene, we don’t see this college trio drink but sit in a class instead.  I imagine that Clooney filmed a raucous set of partying, but it ended up on the cutting room floor, or perhaps, the moment didn’t occur at all. 

It’s impossible to know, but there’s a lot of that in “The Tender Bar”.

Young J.R. writes “The Family Gazette” (as mentioned earlier), but he doesn’t do the research.

Teenager J.R. goes to high school, but he doesn’t have friends or attend class.

College J.R. is a freshman, and in the next minute, he’s a senior.

Adult J.R. works at The Dickens Bar, but he doesn’t bartend, bar-back, or wait tables.

Adult J.R. gets a job at a MAJOR newspaper, but we don’t see him write one story.

Mom (Rabe) and Uncle Charlie (Affleck)

The movie comes to a head when J.R. confronts his primary antagonist, but the emotional impact feels manufactured with some pretty brutal ugliness because maybe, we don’t really know this young man that much at all. 

Well, the movie certainly offers a soulful Ben Affleck supporting performance, some lovely moments from Ranieri, Sheridan, Lloyd, Rabe, and Middleton, and a toe-tapping soundtrack (including “Two of a Kind”, “Dancing in the Moonlight”, and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”). 

Unfortunately, “The Tender Bar” only serves the Cliff Notes of a worthy story.   

⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by:  George Clooney

Written by:  William Monahan, based on J.R. Moehringer’s book

Starring:  Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Daniel Ranieri, Lily Rabe, Briana Middleton, Max Martini, and Christopher Lloyd

Runtime:  106 minutes

Rated: R

Image credits: Amazon Studios

Related posts

Leave a Comment