There are many life lessons in “The Tender Bar,” a new easygoing drama starring Ben Affleck based on the life of journalist and author J.R. Moehringer, and now streaming on Amazon Prime. Set in and around The Dickens, a bar named after the author of “David Copperfield,” barstool wisdom about the value of books, education, taking care of your mother and “not keeping money like a drunk” in the front pocket of your shirt, abounds.
The story begins in 1973 Long Island. “Radar Love” by Golden Earring out of the car the car radio and the impressionable J.R. (played as a youngster by Daniel Ranieri) lives with his mom Dorothy (Lily Rabe) and cranky grandfather (Christopher Lloyd). His father, a radio DJ nicknamed The Voice (Max Martini), isn’t in the picture.
J.R.’s father figure is Uncle Charlie (Affleck), charming bookworm and owner of the Dickens. He is a font of advice, all of which J.R. soaks up “the male sciences” like a sponge. Charlie’s instructions range from the pragmatic—never order bar scotch neat—to the ideological—he urges J.R. to study philosophy. “You always do well in that class,” he says, “because there’s no right answers.”
Charlie’s guidance and the colorful regulars who populate the bar, like Bobo (Michael Braun) and Joey D (Matthew Delamater), help form J.R.’s young life. “When you’re 11 years old,” he says, “you want an Uncle Charlie.”
Cut to a decade later.
J.R., having inherited his Uncle Charlie’s love of storytelling and words, is a student at Yale, studying law but with aspirations to be a writer. Now played by Tye Sheridan, he falls in love with Sidney (Briana Middleton), a smart, “lower upper middle class” schoolmate who gives J.R. another lesson in heartbreak.
“The Tender Bar” is a low key coming-of-age story that works best when it has a glass in front of it. That is to say, when it concentrates on the Dickens and the life lessons young J.R. absorbs at the bar. Those scenes have a lovely nostalgic feel. Director George Clooney vividly recreates a time when ten-year-olds were sent to the local corner bar to by a pack of cigarettes for grandpa. Clooney sets the stage, but it is the actors who bring it to life.
As Affleck settles in to the character actor phase of his career, he’s doing some of his best work. His Uncle Charlie has an effortless charm, a fierce intellect and is a bit of a scoundrel. It’s a performance that feels perfectly shaped and worn in, like an old baseball glove.
The scenes Affleck shares with Ranieri provide the film’s highlights. The young actor, making his film debut, brings genuine curiosity to J.R., a kid who has been knocked around but who always has his eyes to the future. It’s a delightful performance. Sheridan nicely mirrors the character as a young adult, but it is Ranieri who makes us care about J.R.
“The Tender Bar” is a nicely crafted, circumspect look at J.R.’s life. The stakes feel low and big dramatic moments are few and far between, but this textured look at the importance of community, including the drunks at the bar, in the formative stages of J.R.’s life is an understated winner.