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Affleck elevates coming of age dramedy ‘The Tender Bar’

January 10, 2022
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It’s always interesting to see what happens when memoirs become movies. Watching one person’s life story, rendered in their own words, transformed into something else by other artists … it’s fascinating. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. And sometimes, it REALLY doesn’t work. But when it does work, it can make for a truly engaging viewing experience.

“The Tender Bar” works. It works because it is a heartfelt and emotionally honest portrait of a childhood and young adulthood spent in very specifically realized times and places. It works because it is loving without being saccharine and funny without being condescending. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have George Clooney behind the camera and Ben Affleck in front of it.

Based on J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir of the same name, “The Tender Bar” is a loving look back, full of fond memories despite (or perhaps because of) the more complicated aspects of growing up. There’s a well-worn familiarity at work here – we’ve heard plenty of stories like this before – but this tale mostly manages to maintain its charm. Sure, you can argue that its narrative wanders and its tone occasionally ventures too far into the realm of the sentimental, but the people we meet make it an engaging hang nevertheless.

We meet young J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) as he and his single mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe) return to Long Island in the early 1970s to move back in with her parents. J.R.’s dad – a ubiquitous radio DJ and general a-hole known as The Voice (Max Martini) – is out of the picture; his absence is generally met with approval from the family, though his shirking of responsibility is not.

The heads of the Maguire household are Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) and Grandma (Sondra James), but the rest of the ramshackle abode is generally filled with assorted children and grandchildren and cousins and the like. Young J.R. quickly forms an attachment with his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), a smart and savvy underachiever with charm to spare; he owns a local watering hole called the Dickens, a literary bar of sorts (though the clientele isn’t necessarily made up of readers).

Dorothy wants J.R. to go to Harvard or Yale and become a lawyer. The rest of the family has other lessons to teach him. Charlie in particular takes the youngster under his wing, bringing him to the bar and introducing him to the rest of the crew, all while encouraging J.R.’s intellectual curiosity and desire to become a writer, dispensing nuggets of wisdom along the way.

We also get to spend time with college-aged J.R. (Tye Sheridan) a decade-ish later, watching him navigate the scholastic and social vagaries of higher education, even as he maintains the deep connections to his family. There’s a girl – there’s ALWAYS a girl – named Sidney (Briana Middleton); she presents plenty of complications herself.

We move back and forth between eras, watching a young J.R. learning about what it means to be a man and an older J.R. putting those lessons into practice. We see both boy and young man struggling with the absence of his father even as he continues to appreciate the sloppy and cluttered love of the rest of his family.

And so is the early part of a life lived.

If you’re looking for surprises, you’re not going to find many in “The Tender Bar.” There are no twists or turns to this story; it’s a straightforward and deeply familiar tale. Basically, while the lyrics might be different, you’ve heard this tune before. But just because you’ve heard it before doesn’t mean you should miss listening again – that familiarity doesn’t negate its quality.

That’s the thing – this is a lovely story to experience. So what if you know how it’s going to go? So what if there’s nothing to it that feels “new” or whatever? Who cares? It’s still a well-made film, one that embraces nostalgia without succumbing to the toxicity that that impulse can sometimes elicit.

Clooney does good work here. It’s a distinct shift from his previous stint in the chair – last year’s “The Midnight Sky” – and a welcome one. Clooney has always had this proclivity for intimacy and illustrating connections, even in films where that proclivity was largely underutilized. This sort of small, simple story is an ideal canvas for him to stretch those muscles.

(This is where we good-naturedly acknowledge that this film’s Long Island/New York City is undeniably Boston. It’s fine. Most people won’t even notice. But man oh man, is it ever Boston.)

There’s a wonderful ensemble cast here. Ranieri is a precocious delight, largely avoiding the usual kid actor pitfalls. He’s a sweet, open performer – a perfect fit. Sheridan isn’t quite as successful, never fully finding the emotional vulnerability the story demands, but he’s still quite good. Christopher Lloyd is having some fun as the brilliant crackpot grandfather. Rabe does a lot with a little, finding small moments to allow the emotional walls to drop even as she devotes herself to her kid’s future. The bar’s crew has some low-key highlights: Max Casella, Michael Braun and (Maine’s own) Matthew Delamater.

But the central performance here – the one that everyone will talk about – is Ben Affleck. The smooth congeniality of Charlie radiates from every frame of film he occupies, with the actor equally adept at portraying the rascally charm and autodidactic intelligence of the character. Charlie is smart and funny and flawed and wise, the sort of could-have-been that every town has and cherishes. It’s a phenomenal performance – the movie is at its best every time he graces the screen.

“The Tender Bar” isn’t quite great. It loses the thread from time to time and loses considerable steam in the final act, sometimes getting pinned by its own sentimentality. But it is very good, even with those flaws. And when Affleck is rolling, well … then you get great.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 10 January 2022 10:57

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