Moviegoer: The Tender Bar


One great performance does not a movie make

By Diana Beechener

After being evicted from their apartment, young JR (Daniel Ranieri in his feature debut) and his mother,  (Lily Rabe: American Horror Story) are forced to move back into the ramshackle family home on Staten Island. The home is packed to the rafters with grandparents, an aunt and her children.

Though his mom is depressed at their lot in life, JR is thrilled. He loves being around so much family after his father abandoned him. JR finds a special kinship with his uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck: The Last Duel), a bartender who decides it’s up to him to teach JR “the masculine sciences”. Thus begins JR’s education, bellying up to a bar to learn how to treat a lady and talk about sports from Charlie and the barflies.

Charlie also encourages JR to explore the world of books. A voracious reader, JR soon excels in school. His mom has ambitions for an Ivy League education, but JR just hopes to find a meaningful relationship with his horrendous father. As he stumbles toward manhood, JR finds he can rely upon family, even when the rest of the world lets you down.

Based on the memoir of Pulitzer-winning writer J.R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar, rather ironically, has a major story problem. Though theoretically the life story of Moehringer, the movie only works when it features JR’s uncle. Affleck shines as a loveable loser, who gives out pretty good advice for someone who is often seen sleeping on the sofa surrounded by beer cans. Charlie is one of those scruffy philosophers who hangs out at local watering holes, occasionally offering incisive advice and wry observations. Affleck excels at playing verbose, sarcastic underachievers and any time Charlie is on the screen the movie comes to life. More importantly, Affleck has a genuinely brilliant bond with Ranieri, bringing out the best in the young actor.

Director George Clooney (The Midnight Sun) has a spotty history when helming a film. In this movie he leans too far into the sentimental, hitting every coming-of-age cliché he could think of—from the awful absentee father to the heartbreak of first love. Whenever a movie starts off with a block of narration, it’s usually a bad sign. And Clooney leans hard into the idea of an omniscient voice explaining to viewers what’s happening. The film gives very little care in developing most of the other characters. Rabe is just in the background to make concerned faces and the grandmother wanders through the background of each scene putting bacon on plates and washing dishes. The result is narration that discusses the importance of family in a movie that doesn’t give mom or grandma actual names.

The film also suffers when Ranieri is replaced by Tye Sheridan (The Card Counter) as an older JR. Sheridan, whose blonde hair and blue eyes are comically different from Ranieri’s dark eyes and hair, has little to do but mope. Sheridan is saddled with the thankless job of whining through every scene in a form of stalled adolescence. There’s also no real development to JR (other than aging)—he starts a precocious boy and ends a precocious man. It’s this lack of development that makes JR’s scenes without Charlie so dull.

While Clooney does craft a pile of cliches, The Tender Bar is worth a peek for Affleck’s saloon sage. If you’re bored on a rainy Sunday, this is the perfect film. If you’d like some insight into how JR went from an overcrowded home in Staten Island to an in-demand feature writer, the book is a better bet.

The Tender Bar is available on Amazon Prime.

Fair Biopic * R * 106 mins.