Review: Ben Affleck excels at serving life lessons in ‘The Tender Bar’

An older and a younger man stare at each other across a bar.
Ben Affleck, left, stars as a wise uncle and companion in “The Tender Bar.”
(Claire Folger / Amazon Content Services)

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The engaging and nostalgic coming-of-age drama “The Tender Bar,” adapted with a bit of freedom by William Monahan (“The Departed”) from the 2005 memoir by former Los Angeles Times reporter J.R. Moehringer, is a small story with a huge heart, one that should leave all but the most jaded viewers with more than a few well-earned lumps in their throats.

Lovingly directed by George Clooney, the film, set in the early 1970s and the late ’80s, may prove more memorable as a collection of beautifully scripted and performed scenes than as some conflict-heavy, propulsively plotted tale of rising above one’s circumstances. The picture takes a decidedly gentle, loose-limbed approach that finds its own rhythm and style as it goes, aided by smartly evocative production and costume design, an enjoyably familiar soundtrack of period hits (“Radar Love,” anyone?) and an unwavering affection for all things literary.


The film’s first section follows 9-year-old J.R. Maguire (Daniel Ranieri), named for his vanishing-act, radio deejay dad (Max Martini), as he and his financially-strapped single mother, Dorothy (Lily Rabe), must move in with her crotchety dad (Christopher Lloyd) and beleaguered mom (Sondra James) in their Manhasset, Long Island, home (the Boston area effectively subbed). It’s a rundown place where everyone in the noisy family seems to land at one needy point or another.

Dorothy is mortified that she’s back in her childhood house, but J.R. has a more optimistic outlook and is glad to be around “people.” He’s especially excited about another tenant: Dorothy’s bar-owning, Caddie-driving brother, Charlie (Ben Affleck), who takes J.R. under his eagle-eyed wing, dispensing wisdom in “the male sciences” and proving to be the uncle — and father figure — any kid would be blessed to have. It’s a vivid, wonderfully written part and Affleck has never been better.

As young J.R. navigates life around relatives (his eccentric grandpa, an unlikely Dartmouth grad, will prove deceptively supportive), his suburban grade school and Charlie’s welcoming, working-class watering hole called the Dickens (in honor of another Charles), he develops a passion for writing and reading that is stirring to behold. In addition, J.R.’s aspirational mom is hellbent on her son one day attending Harvard or Yale — and that seemingly impossible seed is planted.

It’s no spoiler to report that the studious J.R. (now empathically played by Tye Sheridan) will eventually earn a scholarship to Yale. The film, which jumps to the early 1980s, then tracks J.R. as he diligently dives into campus life, befriends roommates Wesley (Rhenzy Feliz) and Jimmy (Ivan Leung), and falls for the teasingly unattainable Ivy-climber Sidney (Briana Middleton).

Tye Sheridan goes to dark places with two awards-contending films: “The Tender Bar” and “The Card Counter.”

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Even after J.R. graduates and pursues a staff job at the New York Times, he never leaves Long Island and the Dickens far behind, still reliant on Uncle Charlie’s singular brand of forthright guidance, the plucky Dorothy’s devotion and the downscale solace of their Manhasset home.

As always, though the odds may be stacked against him, even a late-breaking, soul-crushing showdown with his estranged, dirtbag dad can’t squelch the earnest J.R.’s burning desire to succeed — as a writer and as a man. And if you know anything about the real Moehringer, he took that commitment to the bank (including winning a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000).


Although the film can feel a tad episodic (particularly during the Yale sequences), loses some of its captivating early energy as it unfolds and may seem overly idealized at times, it’s such an astute and warmhearted journey that it’s hard not to succumb to its underdog charms.

Clooney, whose past directing credits have included such larger-scale, more outwardly ambitious movies as “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “The Ides of March” and last year’s “The Midnight Sky,” should be commended for bringing his estimable filmmaking chops and clout to such a humane, intimate and — yes — tender project. It’s reminiscent, in the best ways, of the kind of personal, lower-stakes little film that might have found its way to screens back when Moehringer’s story takes place and have long been in short supply.

'The Tender Bar'

Rated: R, for language throughout and some sexual content.

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles; available Jan. 7 on Amazon Prime Video