The general description of The Tender Bar is something like this: in the 1970s, a kid named JR with a down-on-her-luck single mother and an absent deadbeat dad gets raised by his bartending Uncle Charlie and assorted colorful guys who hang around the book-lined, working-class Long Island bar called Dickens.
After a limited release back in December, director George Clooney’s The Tender Bar began streaming on Amazon Prime on January 7, and naturally I had to see it. I like stories in which some lone kid is raised by a colorful adult who makes all the difference in enriching their young life — your basic Auntie Mame story has always been a retroactive fantasy of mine. Several colorful adults doing the enriching is also acceptable.
Plus, I like bars. There are so few public havens in American life, and bars are among them. Bars are a place where you can sit quietly with your thoughts or little pastimes while still feeling like you’re part of society — as the film demonstrates, in one of its better scenes, the playing of the Wordy Gurdy newspaper game in the bar is a pleasant private form of relaxation that can turn in an instant into a wonderfully social engagement. Bars consistently offer the possibility of a civilized exchange of pleasantries, for it’s a bad bartender who isn’t adept at exchanges of pleasantries, and other bar-sitters are often inclined to be sociable as well.
So, I was looking forward to The Tender Bar, and it had its moments here and there. But I regret to say that the bar interludes, especially involving the nine-year-old boy JR (Daniel Ranieri), are too few and too short. In fact, a depressing amount of narrative is devoted to JR as a young adult striver (Tye Sheridan) rising up out of stalled working-class conditions to attend Yale University and get a job at the New York Times. As one does — in movies anyway.
Seems to me I’ve read or seen about twenty versions of this story by now — this one is based on journalist J.R. Moehringer’s coming-of-age memoir — and I’ve really come to hate it. Hillbilly Elegy, Educated, The Glass Castle, and who knows how many others have made the best-seller lists, all bootstrapping memoirs about some damaged wunderkind climbing out of a going-nowhere, lower-class-family hell and winding up in a hotshot career. Then, they look back fondly on how they made it out, and there’s a lesson in it for all of us to work harder, because if the damaged wunderkind could do it, why can’t we? (In The Tender Bar, there’s even a running joke making a meta-reference to the publishing trend toward memoirs that the JR character will obviously take successful advantage of.)
Though The Tender Bar doesn’t feature quite the desperate down-and-out squalor of most of the other autobiographical tales, it still makes a big deal of the signs of straitened circumstances that trap people and squander lives. As far as the production design, if there’s paint, it’s peeling; if there’s metal, it’s rusting; and if there’s furniture, it’s sagging. JR and his mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe) start off the film having to move back in with her cantankerous father (Christopher Lloyd), who grudgingly puts up with the way his shabby house is always full of assorted relatives who keep falling on hard times.
Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), who has a gambling problem, lives there too. He’s a tough, been-around guy who right away begins tutoring JR in what he calls “the male sciences,” a series of masculine rules for living that are clearly meant to establish Uncle Charlie as an old-fashioned mensch underneath the jaded exterior. Uncle Charlie’s also an autodidact, who assesses JR’s potential as a writer immediately and begins to instruct him in how to become one. He throws open his closet door to show JR his thousand-book collection, saying, “What you do is, you read all those.”
Uncle Charlie is full of literary-based advice for navigating society, telling JR if he wants to understand America, he has to learn to avoid people who aren’t “real rich” but act as if they were: “Read Orwell on the lower-upper-middle-class. They’re the ones that really suck.” Ultimately, JR will have an epiphany that his sometimes girlfriend Sidney (Briana Middleton) is so horrible because she’s “lower-upper-middle-class.”
Okay, I hate to nitpick here, but George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier was talking about a very particular class stratum in England, low on money but high on gentility — people struggling financially to keep up appearances while identifying with aristocracy, taught to tip servants correctly though they’d never have any. Orwell was a member of that class himself, and was damning it from the inside. That doesn’t seem much like Sidney, whose affluent Westport parents are open, apparently shameless social climbers and rude as hell to JR in the most egregious way.
It’s worth noting here that Sidney is the mixed-race daughter of a black mother and a white father, and that the movie makes nothing whatsoever of that fact. Class is the whole show in determining the attitudes of the family toward JR. Sidney, who at first seems superficially indifferent to JR’s lower-class status, eventually reveals she’s absorbed her parents’ class values completely.
Anyway, Uncle Charlie’s broader point in quoting Orwell is, you have to beware of the almost-rich, because you never even meet the “real rich — they’re invisible.” Though surely if JR is going to Yale, he’s going to run across a few “real rich” people? I don’t know. The point is Uncle Charlie reads books and he’s trying to help.
With such a manifest father figure right in front of him, JR nevertheless spends the entire film yearning for his biological father, a macho grotesque who’s achieved some radio fame as a DJ called “the Voice” (Matt Martini). In fact, JR has so many supportive paternal figures all around him, his father complex gets extremely annoying. He chooses to be called by the initials “JR,” though they actually stand for “Junior,” because he was named after his horrible dad. And absolutely everyone in the movie asks him what JR stands for.
“A doctor at school says I have no identity,” says the boy to his father, “the Voice,” on one of his rare visits.
“Jesus,” grunts the Voice, lighting up a cigarette in the most toxically masculine way possible. “Get one.”
Smoking cigarettes in an extreme, overly dramatic way is also a choice made by Ben Affleck as Uncle Charlie. There’s a lot of emphatic flipping of lighters open and closed and taking huge drags and exhaling smoke along with lines of tough, lowdown pop philosophy. Affleck’s getting a lot of good reviews, even if the movie in general is earning many critical “mehs,” but his performance sure looked overdone to me.
For me, it was Christopher Lloyd who outacted everybody. Unfortunately, he wasn’t given much to do as the generally mordant grandfather whose life has been a disappointment to him and who often takes it out on the rest of his family. But there’s one scene that’s briefly wonderful, in which he’s getting dressed up to take JR to a “father-and-son breakfast” hosted by the school. He stands in front of a small mirror, back to the camera, trying to smooth back his overgrown hair. Here, Lloyd manages to convey just through his hands and posture all the poignancy of the old man’s earnest desire to look presentable on this one occasion. Even the back of Lloyd’s scalp seems to be giving a moving performance.
So, there are occasionally touching or mildly amusing scenes in this film, but they mainly involve the premise that was advertised — kid, uncle, bar — and not the story we’re actually stuck with most of the time. Yalie JR’s romantic troubles cast a particular pall. There’s some very careless writing by William Monahan and directing by George Clooney, so that some characters are barely sketched in. JR’s Yale friends, for example, are those cardboard exposition-furthering creatures who only exist to ask him about his father complex or why he’s still pining over that no-good Sidney. Plus, Monahan and Clooney included a half-assed voice-over narration by Ron Livingston as “future JR” that seems gratuitous.
It’s too bad that these movies about rough working-class life never seem to get made by people who actually lived a rough working-class life. They might be able to convey the details of it more compellingly and avoid the tendency to always frame it as a lesson in how to scrabble out of the working class, leaving that inconveniently cash-strapped family far behind.
These memoirs and films are all hopelessly behind the times anyway, still harping on an education at a fancy school as the practically surefire way to achieve the American dream, as if nothing had changed in the last forty years.
“Future JR” might at least have issued the warning: “Don’t try this at home, kids.”