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The Tender Bar delivers a poignant adaptation of J.R. Moeringer's stirring 2005 coming-of-age memoir



George Clooney directs this adaptation of J. R. Moehringer's 2005 memoir—a coming-of-age story about a young boy (played by Daniel Ranieri) growing up in Long Beach who seeks out father figures among the regulars at his Uncle Charlie's (Ben Affleck) bar. As a young man (Tye Sheridan), he struggles to find his place in the world. (106 min.)

LOOKING FOR GUIDANCE Young and fatherless J.R. (Daniel Ranieri, left) learns to be a man from his bartender uncle, Charlie (Ben Affleck), in The Tender Bar, based on J.R. Moehringer's 2005 memoir. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BIG INDIE PICTURES AND SMOKEHOUSE PICTURES
  • Photo Courtesy Of Big Indie Pictures And Smokehouse Pictures
  • LOOKING FOR GUIDANCE Young and fatherless J.R. (Daniel Ranieri, left) learns to be a man from his bartender uncle, Charlie (Ben Affleck), in The Tender Bar, based on J.R. Moehringer's 2005 memoir.

Glen I loved the book upon which this film is based, and though much of the memoir's richness and depth have been lost in this film adaptation, Clooney and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) manage to retain and express its most important themes: growing up fatherless, the fierce love of a single mother, learning what it means to be a man from dubious "authorities" on the subject, surviving a first love and the insidiousness of societal class systems, finding a life's purpose, and becoming an authentically good man. The story is essentially split between child J.R. spending time with Uncle Charlie, his bar's regulars, and his Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd), who he and his mom (Lily Rabe) go to live with after she can no longer support them; and college-age J.R., as he navigates the early stages of adulthood and battles personal demons while striving to become a writer. We meet J.R.'s absent and deadbeat father, dubbed The Voice (Max Martini), a New York radio disc jockey sliding into alcoholism and professional obscurity. What's missing in the film is the development of the bar's patrons—Chief (Max Casella), Bobo (Michael Braun), and Joey D. (Matthew Delamater)—who are more fully fleshed out in the book. What Monahan wisely left out of the screenplay was the memoir's ending connected to 9/11, which would have been a distraction.

Anna So much of the memoir was J.R. developing as a person built from the characters around him, and while the film holds true to his closeness with his Uncle Charlie, it doesn't quite have the time or mechanism to develop the bar regulars. We do get a glimpse when, using his grandfather's cigarette change, J.R. "backs up" Bobo at the bar—aka buys his next round. He's a sweet and thoughtful kid, well portrayed by the impossibly adorable Ranieri who doesn't mistake J.R.'s tender, sweet nature for weakness. He's a voracious reader who wants to be a writer despite his mother's determination for him to go into law. Her discontent with being back at home isn't shared by her young son, who loves having so many people around. He never has to be lonely again. The book made me cry plenty and so did the film—I know inevitably I will read critics complain about the treacle of it all and about Clooney wielding emotion as a weapon against his audience, but personally I'm here for it! Sometimes we all need a feel-good win, and the fact that it's based on a real person grounds it in reality. If you've got Amazon Prime or a theater screening this, it's certainly worth escaping into.

Glen This is Ranieri's first acting role, and he's terrific. In fact, I liked the first half of the film focused on child J.R. more than the second half, though Sheridan also turns in a good performance. I was totally blown away by Affleck, however. His Uncle Charlie is such a likable character while also being vaguely tragic. An autodidact and voracious reader, Charlie wastes his potential slinging drinks, bowling with his lowbrow buddies, and drifting through life. Affleck digs deep into the role and plays Charlie with uncommon subtly. It would be easy for J.R. to follow in Charlie's footsteps, but Charlie doesn't want that for his nephew and encourages J.R. to aim high, which is why he takes a trainee job at The New York Times, which J.R. also hopes will impress his ex-girlfriend, Sidney (Briana Middleton)—another important lesson J.R. must learn about the futility of doing things to impress others. Moehringer won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2000, wrote the novel Sutton in 2012 about bank robber Willie Sutton, ghostwrote Phil Knight's 2016 memoir Shoe Dog, and co-wrote Prince Harry's upcoming memoir due later this year, but The Tender Bar is his magnum opus. Watch the film, read the book—they're both worth your time.

Anna Affleck hasn't been getting the greatest press as of late, but I couldn't help but like him here. His Charlie is so loving and yet subtly sad. He takes it upon himself to fill J.R. in on all the things a young man usually learns from his father, what he called "man science," about bar etiquette, women, books, and ambition. While his role in The Way Back was powerful, this felt raw and personal and like a peek behind the Affleck curtain. He gets to get lost a little bit here in Charlie, and it's a great reminder that Affleck is indeed a gifted actor. Like you said, book or movie, you can't go wrong—this coming-of-age tale is lovely every way it comes to us. With the continued pandemic and variants popping up left and right, who needs an excuse to curl up and watch a new flick? Go ahead and turn the lights down, grab a couple of tissues and a snack, and settle in for this feel-good treat. Δ

Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at [email protected].


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