The Tender Bar is a somewhat formulaic but sweet coming of age story. Considering the film is narrated by the older adult version of the main character it has the unfortunate effect of feeling like a lost episode of The Wonder Years guest starring Ben Affleck. It’s a bit damning that the part which focuses on the kid version of the main character is actually more compelling, and the kid actor has more charisma, than the young adult version which takes up most of the movie’s running time. But there are some good performances and amusing moments, even if it leans a bit heavily into “blue collar folks are the salt of the Earth” tropes. Mainly, Affleck’s heartfelt performance gives this generic coming of age movie some soul.
In the 1970s, Young JR (Daniel Ranieri) and his mom (Lily Rabe) move into the home of his grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) after the JR’s father (Max Martini) abandons them to live the nomadic life of a radio DJ known as “The Voice”. Young JR bonds with his Uncle Charlie (Affleck) who runs a local bar who nurtures the kid’s passion for writing. Years pass and grown up JR (Tye Sheridan) is accepted into Yale on a full scholarship as his mother yearns for him to be a lawyer, but he still wants to become a writer. At school he meets his buddy Wesley (Rhenzy Feliz) and falls hard for the girl Sidney (Briana Middleton), but she constantly keeps him away from her throughout their college years. When he graduates, he takes a swing at being a reporter for the prestigious New York Times. But he still dreams of being a writer, has unrequited love for Sidney, and potentially will be hanging out at his Uncle’s bar for the rest of his life.
Even though the movie is about JR, the standout is Affleck as Uncle Charlie. He’s doing the wise, world-weary sage thing so naturally he has the best lines. One of the better moments is early on when he tells the kid version of JR the rules of being a man, mostly about having a certain amount of cash and keeping yourself together, but Affleck delivers it excellently. Later, Uncle Charlie is briefly hospitalized but still has confidence and charm and then asks JR about his own life. This is a downer because Affleck’s Uncle Charlie is way more interesting than the main character the movie revolves around.
Ron Livingston provides the narration as the Future JR and it’s a cheap cliché having the old version of the main character narrate his life. The most interesting thing with the two distinct time periods is a brief, drunken dream when Adult JR is talking with Kid JR and it’s funny to see the two versions of the same character dropping F-bombs. Ranieri gets good scenes with Affleck early on as Charlie doesn’t talk down to the kid but treats him as an equal. One of the more emotional bits is when Young JR is called by his father, promising a day at the ballgame, and the kid sits on the porch all night waiting for him to show up. Later, Young JR wants to go to a father/son event at school so he brings his grandpa. Llyod is often very funny, especially when he’s at the father/son event and goes off on the notion of the education system.
As the mom, has a funny running gag about being too emotional. Mostly, Rabe gets to say lots of mom stuff about how she’s looking out after her boy and how his father is just a goon. She’s not wrong and Martini plays The Voice DJ as a complete mess. The peak dramatic bit is when Adult JR goes for dinner at his father’s house and it quickly falls apart. JR stands for “Junior” but JR refuses to be called that as he doesn’t want to acknowledge his father, even at one point getting in a pedantic argument with his New York Times editor about the usage of periods in his byline.
The Adult JR encounters standard coming of age stuff, goes to college, falls in love, has his heart broken, yet keeps trucking on. Sheridan is better at little random weird moments, like an amusingly melodramatic bit when JR is hollering for his lady. Or when he spends the night with Sidney and has a very awkward encounter with her parents the morning after and says something really inappropriate before storming out. As the love of his life who keeps bailing on him, Middleton is nicely sweet when they first meet and acts cold when she tries to cut him out of her life. Feliz as the best buddy gets in some stock best buddy character moments and goes off on a funny rant why evolution is the reason they’re lucky to be there. It’s not a deep part but Feliz enlivens it.
It may be formulaic but The Tender Bar has its moments. Director George Clooney has funnier and crazier films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or The Midnight Sky, making this one of his most low-key efforts. This comes in a generic package, but Affleck’s mentor makes it worthwhile. By the end, the main character drives away into the sunset with his bland narration talking about a life that has been seen in many movies before.
The Tender Bar
Director: George Clooney
Starring: Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd and Daniel Ranieri