The Tender Bar is a film that I found incredibly frustrating to watch.
This is not because the plot is incomprehensible or the performances are bad, but instead it is because I immediately thought the film should be so much better than what I watched.
The Tender Bar is based on the memoir by J.R. Moehringer and it follows his early life as he grows to become a writer. The story begins with J.R. and his mother moving back to live with his grandparents. Every person we come in contact in the opening twenty minutes seems to be a caricature of some sort. The cranky grandfather, the alcoholic father, the domineering mother, the know-it-all barflies and the loud and obnoxious family. I’m sure the people that are based on these characters are more interesting and entertaining in real life, but they are very one-dimensional in this film.
In fact, the only time The Tender Bar really hits its stride is when J.R. (played by Daniel Ranieri when he is young and Tye Sheridan when he is older) and Uncle Charlie (played by Ben Affleck) interact on the screen. As J.R.’s father could care less about him, Charlie fills the void and gives J.R. tips on life, love and how the world works. That is essentially the plot of the film. J.R. experiences things in life, he talks about it with his uncle and then goes on to have another experience. Although J.R.’s mom wants him to go to Harvard or Yale so he can become a lawyer, J.R. wants to be a writer, which his uncle is more than happy to help with by exposing him to a lot of classic English literature. The Tender Bar almost feels like a series of vignettes, memories of moments trapped in a once whimsical time, instead of an actual plot.
There are some really nice sequences, such as when J.R.’s grandfather (played by Christopher Lloyd) gets dressed up to take his grandson to a father/son lunch because his real father is nowhere to be found, while the absolute highlight of the film is a kitchen table scene where J.R. meets his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, which is a perfect example of people being condescending and snarky to one another, all while keeping a smile on each other’s faces.
The big disappointment about The Tender Bar for me was the fact that we are introduced to characters all the time, but they tend to have a small moments and then fade into the background, instead of us getting to learn about them more and their stories. The aforementioned girlfriend comes and goes as she pleases (the film never really delves deep into why J.R. keeps longing for her); one of J.R.’s roommates in college gets an introduction, but is reduced to the background after that; J.R.’s grandmother, Charlie’s girlfriend, the barflies and even Charlie’s grandfather disappear with no explanation why. If you are going to take the time to introduce us to characters that meant a lot to J.R. in his life, develop them.
For the most part, The Tender Bar has this carefree, playful feel tone about it as there are no real stakes or consequences for the characters. There are few times when the film gets serious, especially for a sequence in the third act of the film with his father, but these scenes don’t fit the tone of the rest of the film. I think that is why I was frustrated watching The Tender Bar, as I know there is a better film than in there than what the finished product turned out to be.
I wanted to get to know all these characters more, I wanted to learn about their hopes, dreams, fears, regrets and triumphs, but instead I finished the film feeling empty, wishing that I knew more about the lives these people lived. I have generally liked the films George Clooney has directed and William Monahan has written, but at the end of the day, I have to say that this is not a strong effort from them. The only positive is that The Tender Bar has made me interested in reading the book to learn more about the story of J.R. Moehringer.