This well-meaning drama needs to dig deeper in the journalist’s life and ambitions.
“The Tender Bar” is a memoir based on the life of journalist and novelist J.R. Moehringer. George Clooney’s film version of it has the right actor to portray him in his youth and it has its heart in the right place, because of his influencers and how he learns to get inside the world of journalism, but it could have been deeper and more complex. As a film critic, I’ve been told that professional reviews had to be longer and more detailed. And I think that’s what the movie should have been.
When J.R. was a boy, his deadbeat DJ father (Max Martini) dumped his mother (Lily Rabe) for his work, which forced them to move back in Long Island with his grandparents (Christopher Lloyd and the recently departed Sondra James) and his wise Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), who is a role model to him. Ron Livingston plays the older J.R., who also serves as the narrator of the beginning, while newcomer Daniel Ranieri is the kid version, and Tye Sheridan is the teenage J.R.
The initials J.R. stand for Junior, but given the circumstances of his lousy father, he would rather not be named Junior.
Charlie runs The Dickens bar, and it has a variety of books for his nephew to read. This inspires him to become a writer, while his mother wants him to be a lawyer, and he eventually get accepted into Yale. During his stay, he starts an on and off relationship with his lower, upper middle classmate Sidney (Briana Middleton), makes friends with his roommate Wesley (Rhenzy Feliz), focuses on his writing skills, gets some advice from his Uncle Charlie, and after graduation, he lands an opportunity at the New York Times.
The best performances in the movie come from Sheridan, Affleck, and Ranieri. Sheridan has the youth and tone to portray J.R. Moehringer in his teenage-young-adult years, and he’s proven himself to be a professional actor with “Mud” and “The Card Counter,” etc. Affleck, who will turn 50-year-old next year, has the age and attitude as the uncle, who talks tough but has a heart of gold. And Ranieri makes an impressive introduction to his movie career, and I admire the ballsy attempt at placing both him and Sheridan in the same dream sequence, when the kid tells the adult to get himself on track.
Clooney is able to direct these three talents with a sense of naturalism, but the screenplay by William Monahan (whose best work was “The Departed”) should have given it a stronger sense. We acknowledge that J.R. has had a crappy father (a cop tells the boy he doesn’t get to pick) and that the bar tender was more than just a role model to him, but those scenes seemed routine. And his would-be love story with Sidney is all cut-and-paste, as if we’re not supposed to figure out what her deal is.
Many movies can follow the same formulas, but only if they expand on the drama and lead us to unfamiliar territories. I wanted more basis of the mom and uncle hating the dad, and how his grandparents have no opportunities ahead of them. I guess it was supposed to be funny that Lloyd farts and says: “I didn’t do that.”
I was criticized by someone for not seeing the big picture that “My Salinger Year” was trying to convey. I guess I didn’t it that way, but I wanted “The Tender Bar” to give the main protagonist a “Good Will Hunting” vibe. Maybe Affleck could have helped written the screenplay to expand on his life story. After all, he and Damon did give “The Last Duel” the right intentions in a timely fashion.
Every journalist needs to be criticized so they’ll do better. Maybe I’ll get criticized for seeing the movie a different way, too, and maybe people will agree with me. But if you watch this movie version and read the book, you can tell me how it compares or contrasts with one another.
In Select Theaters This Friday
Expands on December 22
Streaming on Amazon Prime January 7