Released: 7th January
Seen: 31st January
In 2005, reporter John Joseph ‘”JR” Moehringer released his memoir The Tender Bar to much critical acclaim. The book detailed his life from childhood through college and into his mid-30s, largely surrounding the people who he happened to meet at a bar called Dickens. The book was a success and like a lot of successful books, it eventually got turned into a movie because apparently, we’ve hit the point where writers’ memoirs get to turn into movies… maybe we’ll be lucky and JR won’t turn out to be a piece of shit like the guy who wrote Hillbilly Elegy. He already has a leg up by having the better movie, though it’s not a great one.
The Tender Bar spends most of its time focusing on JR, both during his childhood (Daniel Ranieri) and when he is a college-age student (Tye Sheridan). To tell the story of how JR grew into a man a large amount of time is spent with his surrogate fathers that he has from Dickens bar, most importantly is his uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) who is the one who keeps giving him pep talks and encouraging JR on his road to being a writer. Along the way JR will fall in love with another student in his school, Sidney (Briana Middleton), deal with his mother Dorothy’s (Lily Rabe) throat cancer and try to make it through Yale… largely off-screen or in very small chunks, the kid doesn’t seem to have a lot of obstacles in his life.
The Tender Bar is a very simple little story, just following a boy growing up to become a writer. I’m sure this story is a lot more interesting in the memoir because you can go into rich detail, show off lyrical prose and witty descriptions of certain events but as a film, it’s not exactly filled with drama. While the majority of The Tender Bar is a sweet simple slice of life, actual dramatic moments like main characters getting hospitalised or an entire potential romance plot are thrown aside almost as quickly as they’re brought up. It’s kind of realistic in that this is what would happen if you took the first 25 years of a person’s life and told it in 90 minutes, it’s not got a grand arc or an interesting story to tell which would be fine except this is a movie, you kind of need that.
We spend The Tender Bar just watching JR going through life as normal with minimal problems. His entry into Yale is not even a question, hell the scene where he’s accepted is also where they’re told it’s all paid for already. He seems to do well in his classes, his mother is healthy as could be after her tumour, his relationship with Sidney doesn’t work out but it never seems to bother him (indeed you could cut the scenes with Sidney out of the movie and lose nothing narratively) and even his writing for the New York Times isn’t really a major negative, he gets a byline pretty quickly and there are no major conflicts. There’s no conflict in general throughout this entire film, certainly, none that requires JR to grow or learn something… but that’s also not really the full point of The Tender Bar (it just means the film is very one-note in terms of tone).
The Tender Bar is at its best when it’s about JR and Charlie, specifically showing how Charlie is more of a father to JR than JR’s actual father (who only turns up in one scene towards the end and… well, would’ve presented a conflict if this film wanted to have any of that) and that you can choose who you consider family. These moments when Charlie is trying to impart all his wisdom onto JR are the heart and soul of the film and provide Ben Affleck with enough material to really stand out in a film where everyone is just kind of getting by. There’s a reason he’s been getting a lot of praise here, he does a lot with very little to work with and it’s just charming to watch.
Honestly, that might be the best phrase for The Tender Bar, it’s charming. Sure it might lack an actually interesting story or conflict and it feels like most of the effort went into Charlie because it was the obvious awards performance but there’s still a surprising amount of charm here. It doesn’t feel like they’re pretending that life was a complete hardship, it’s just a normal life and sure that doesn’t make for the most dramatic film ever but it’s still charming, especially with this cast.
Look, The Tender Bar isn’t exactly great or memorable but it’s fine, it’s charming enough that you’ll have a decent time with it. Ben Affleck is pretty good in it, you get brief moments of Christopher Lloyd and the soundtrack is pretty awesome. It does the bare minimum to be called good and that’s all it was trying to be and it succeeded at that… now can we stop adapting memoirs of writers into movies because they’re not that interesting, best we’re ever going to get is “It’s OK” and we have that now so it’s time to stop.