George Clooney lets his protagonist breathe, and The Tender Bar is a richer, funnier, and wiser story because of it.
Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan in The Tender Bar
“Look at that? That little compartment in your wallet, right? That’s where you keep your stashes. It’s like $ 100, five, whatever, depending on the economy. The important thing is that you don’t. never, ever drink that money. What else? Hold the doors. Be nice to your mother. Teach yourself how to change a tire, jump a car. That’s it. “
One of director George Clooney’s strongest scenes The tender bar sees Charlie Maguire (Ben Affleck) teaching his young nephew JR (Daniel Ranieri, played by Tye Sheridan as a young adult) “male science”, summarized in the dialogue quoted above. The boy’s father (Max Martini) recently left his mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe), and Charlie, a self-taught man (the family didn’t have enough money to send him to college, implied ), who runs a bar called “The Dickens” (properly stocked with books), tries to be the father figure in the little boy’s life. Affleck is quite touching as Charlie, his winning smile just dull enough around the edges to reflect the elephant in the family room: that the odds are against young JR (and that Charlie is living proof of that).
After the divorce, Dorothy returns to her father’s (Christopher Lloyd, in one of his many eccentric roles as grandfather) former home with Charlie and the rest of the extended family. While JR enjoys having a rotating group of young cousins playing and heckling around the place, Dorothy hates not being able to give her child a better life; she swears that JR will one day go to “Harvard or Yale”.
As you would expect from a young boy, this comfortable but somewhat complicated family life at times becomes too much of a challenge for young JR, and he begins dating Charlie and his Long Island pals at The Dickens. As the name of the film suggests, this is the crux of the story – how young JR matures in this bar full of books and puzzles. The “tender” part seeks to oppose The Dickens to the alcoholic and macho male model of behavior. Charlie’s little monologue on “male science” sets the tone towards the beginning of the film.
Generally speaking, the first half of the film follows JR from his childhood until his first year in college, and the second half follows his young career as a writer. It’s fair to say that the first half works much better than the second. There are good structural reasons for this – the story of a working class kid trying to get to Ivy League college (on a scholarship, mind you, because that’s the only way he can afford to go) immediately appealed to a wide cross section of people.
However, as JR himself admits in an internal monologue towards the end, there is no real origin story in becoming a writer. There are no real institutional standards, and besides, no one can “explain” how or why they write, beyond a point. Tracing this path over 30-40 minutes was always going to be a daunting task, and that’s understandable, The tender bar loses some speed in his second half.
For the most part, however, The tender bar is an often funny and empathetic Bildungsroman led by Ben Affleck in great shape.
He was nominated for a Golden Globe for the role, and I think he had a good chance for the award.
The tender bar is based on the memoir of the same name by JR Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist. Moehringer worked on the superb memoirs of Andre Agassi Open, and would also be the negro of the next memoirs of Prince Harry. The man clearly has a sense of life stories, and to his credit, Clooney brought some of that energy to The tender bar – a lot of JR’s voiceovers are witty observations on the historiography of it all, on the stupid, messy, downright vital matter of chronicling a life, any life, really. For this reason, the film may seem slow, no doubt. But I loved it, actually: Clooney is smart enough to realize that not all stories strictly (or even at all) adhere to the three-act structure. He lets JR breathe, and The tender bar is a richer, funnier, wiser story because of it.
The Tender Bar is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and journalist who is currently working on an essay book on Indian comics and graphic novels.