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To quote Yogi Berra, “The Tender Bar” is “déjà vu all over again.” This is the same "young man's coming-of-age story" you’ve seen over and over. Nothing new has been added. The poster calls this “a feel good movie,” but who is supposed to feel good here? Certainly not the average viewer, who has seen this tired material so many times they can practically recite the dialogue. Could it be the characters, a “lovable” bunch of sad-sack losers who always get the benefit of the doubt no matter how little they deserve it? Perhaps it’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose book warranted this adaptation? Or maybe it’s George Clooney, who took a paycheck to direct a movie so flatly that his disinterest is evident in every frame.
We’re in the age of the uncle movie, and their influential characters run the gamut of stereotypes. We’ve had the cool, gay uncle in “Uncle Frank” and the big-hearted, sensitive uncle in “C’mon C’mon.” “The Tender Bar” has the straight-shooting, honest uncle whose true self gets poisoned by nostalgia. You know this one; he’s the tough guy who cusses in front of you when you’re a kid, promises to always tell you the truth, and gives you romantic advice that will prove useless. He can even get the everlasting gobstopper crap beaten out of him, and your hazy affection for his toughness won’t waver. You think back on him with fondness, as he was so much larger than life in your youth, and that affection buffs off the edges you unwillingly recall as an adult.
This kind of uncle is embodied here by Ben Affleck, whose presence made me incorrectly assume this movie took place in Boston. Uncle Ben, or rather, Uncle Charlie as Affleck’s character is christened, runs a bar on Long Island called The Dickens Bar. Unlike Joseph Cotten’s more famous namesake from “Shadow of a Doubt,” Uncle Charlie doesn’t murder people and terrorize his sister’s kid; the star rating would be higher if he did. Instead, he instructs his young nephew JR in the fine art of being a man. These lessons are necessary because, you guessed it, JR’s got daddy issues exacerbated by his missing Papa, a radio DJ nicknamed “The Voice” (Max Martini). JR listens to The Voice whenever he can, while he and his mother (Lily Rabe) wonder where he is. Considering radio stations have call letters and physical locations in 1973, it shouldn’t be too hard to find this deadbeat. Whenever anyone hears The Voice on the radio, they immediately knock over or destroy the radio. These folks have lots of radios to pummel.
No matter. The Voice shows up every so often to predictably disappoint the young JR, who is played in an excellent debut by Daniel Ranieri, and to infuriate the older JR, who is played by Tye Sheridan with just as much disinterest as his director puts into shooting him. One of many running jokes that never works (but would inspire a great drinking game to pass your time) is the response whenever JR introduces himself. “What does the JR stand for?” they ask. There’s no answer. Another unsuccessful running joke is the reason why Uncle Charlie gets angry whenever The Voice shows up—apparently he owes Charlie 30 dollars. My mind drifted to the pissed off paperboy from “Better Off Dead,” who constantly screamed “I want my two dollars!!” whenever he saw John Cusack. At least he doesn’t get beaten up for demanding his dough. Uncle Charlie, on the other hand, is not so lucky.
Mom (as she’s billed) wants JR to go to Yale. Nobody believes he can get in, least of all Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd). Grandpa wants Mom, JR, and Uncle Charlie out of his damn house. “You keep coming back!” he says when Mom complains about how horrible a father he was. These scenes play like a bad sitcom. I don’t know how faithful William Monahan’s script is to J.R. Moehringer’s memoir, but I hope the book has more substance and less cliché. I don’t have to tell you that JR will easily get into Yale with a full ride, will fall in love with a rich woman who uses his blue collar heart as a doormat, and will achieve his dream of being a writer despite the New York Times firing him because, just like this movie, most of his news stories are puff pieces about The Dickens Bar.
“Narration!!” reads the opening line of my notes for “The Tender Bar.” I underlined it three times out of frustration. Unless it’s a film noir or Morgan Freeman is on the soundtrack, narration far too often symbolizes lazy screenwriting. Granted, this is a memoir, but when JR is telling you things you’re already seeing or have just seen, it makes his voice on the soundtrack extraneous. Making matters worse, unlike Ranieri, whose eyes sparkle with wonder and admiration in every scene, Sheridan’s performance elicits no response from the viewer, even in the unnecessarily brutal final showdown with The Voice. I suppose that, given the familiarity of every aspect of the plot, the makers of this film were hoping you’d bring your own emotional baggage so you can do the heavy lifting instead of them.
At least Affleck is very, very good here, turning a thankless role into something more memorable than the material suggests. I wouldn’t want him as my uncle, but my love of dive bars made me want him to be my bartender. He has fun with his profane dialogue and has chemistry with the regulars, including Max Casella and Michael Braun. This is the kind of role that gets the Oscar nomination over the more deserving performance by the same actor in a different film, so don’t be surprised if Affleck gets one for this. It’ll be as predictable a development as every detail in “The Tender Bar.”
Now playing in select theaters and available on Amazon on January 7th.
Ben Affleck as Uncle Charlie
Tye Sheridan as J. R. Moehringer
Lily Rabe as Dorothy Moehringer
Christopher Lloyd as Grandpa
Daniel Ranieri as Young J. R. Moehringer
Rhenzy Feliz as Wesley
Briana Middleton as Sidney
Max Casella as Chief