They say it takes a village to raise a child, but in Pulitzer-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer’s case, a Long Island pub will do. A broadly appealing, only slightly sentimental personal history adapted from Moehringer’s memoir by director George Clooney and “The Departed” screenwriter Bill Monahan, “The Tender Bar” acknowledges how, growing up without a father, the young J.R. found the next best thing, if not better, in his blue-collar uncle Charlie (a terrific Ben Affleck, who, between this and “The Way Back,” could well be entering a new chapter in his career).
It was Charlie — bartender at a spot called The Dickens, where rows of thick hardback books lined the shelves behind the bar — who encouraged J.R.’s early attempts at writing, and who taught the boy what it meant to be a man and how to respect women. When the time came, Charlie showed J.R. how to drive and served the young man his first drink. Where was J.R.’s (not dead, but deadbeat) dad in all of this, you ask? He was there but not there, a voice on the radio: Dad (Max Martini) was a New York DJ who’d had a fling with his mom, Dorothy (Lily Rabe), some years earlier, but didn’t stick around to help her raise the kid.
Considering the source, it’s unsurprising that “The Tender Bar” should be told from a few decades’ remove via an older, wiser and now better-with-words voiceover narration, delivered by Tye Sheridan as the older, Yale-graduated version of the character. J.R. spends so much time insisting that he didn’t mind not having a dad in his life that you can’t help realizing the truth must have been exactly the opposite. And though the story builds to an attempted reunion that even the screenplay acknowledges as somewhat contrived, it’s relatable in the sense that so many Americans didn’t grow up in perfect “Leave It to Beaver” households, and so it falls to us to define our identities as shaped by but separate from whatever families we were given.
In 1973, at the age of 9, J.R. (child-actorly Daniel Ranieri, defined by his big brown eyes and even darker lashes) and his mom left the big city and moved back to Manhasset, Long Island. It must have been especially humiliating for Dorothy, who’d enjoyed a few years’ independence before returning to the boisterous family home, where her brother (Affleck) and sister (Ranieri’s real-life mom, Danielle) still lived with their disheveled dad (Christopher Lloyd), a man defined by his routine of farting and then unconvincingly insisting, “I didn’t do that!” Hey, it’s his house.
J.R. is fiercely loyal to his mother, and yet, the film is fairly incurious about what she was going through during much of this time, focused as it is on how the boy found the inspiration to become a writer. Whereas novels require a writer to identify with other people, when it comes to memoir, that kind of narcissism is baked into the form. It may be a hot trend in publishing, but it’s far from my favorite genre, and few Hollywood clichés annoy me more than the one where a writer struggles to find his voice, only to wind up writing the film we’ve just seen (e.g., “The Wonder Boys”).
What makes films like this work isn’t sincerity but specificity: those details that someone couldn’t just make up, or that we’d never believe if they did. The family in “The Tender Bar” reminded me of the feisty Eklund clan in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” minus a lot of the tornado-unleashed-indoors energy that made them seem so alive. Still, there are glimpses of that same kind of spunk here, as when Dad — aka The Voice — comes over the radio and someone hastily shoves the device off a shelf. J.R. spends a good deal of his childhood listening to the radio, trying to imagine some kind of connection with the man on the other end, although the few times they do interact mostly serve to reinforce what a scumbag the guy is.
Luckily (and luck is a concept Moehringer doesn’t take lightly), J.R. has a stand-up guy like Uncle Charlie instead, and whatever the real-life version might have been like hardly matters, since Affleck turns him into one of the year’s most memorable characters. He’s a slightly flawed but thoroughly sincere substitute father figure who likes baseball and bowling, but recognizes instantly that J.R. has no aptitude for sports and tries to encourage his intellectual side instead. Charlie is a smart guy too, well-read enough to recommend and discuss the books that play such a key role in shaping J.R.’s personality — although the film argues that Uncle Charlie had a greater impact.
After the super-turkey that was “Gigli” — if not immediately following the multitalent’s premature Oscar win for the similarly feel-good “Good Will Hunting” — public sentiment turned on Affleck, who’s so good at playing the charismatic and relatable everyman that people seem to resent how lucky the guy has it in his off-screen life. (To quote the film on that subject: “Luck is how we all got here.”) But it’s not easy being Ben Affleck, by which I mean, there aren’t many actors who seem so comfortably themselves on-screen, and now that Affleck has reached middle age, he’s capable of bringing fresh depth to his performances. We saw it earlier this year in “The Way Back,” which drew on the actor’s own battles with alcoholism, and here, the wear and tear and flecks of white in his hair give dimension to a character who presents his best possible face to J.R., but is clearly more complicated than this kid’s-eye view is ready to acknowledge.
If only such growth were evident on Clooney’s side of the equation: When the actor first tried his hand at directing, he set his sights high, first with the ambitious but awful “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and later, far more successfully, in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” But Clooney’s filmmaking has been hit-and-mostly-miss ever since: polished enough, but lacking much of a personality. There’s a certain blandness to “The Tender Bar” as well, à la “Tuesdays With Morrie” or any number of ostensibly inspirational memoirs, though perhaps the maturity comes in the willingness to get out of the movie’s way and let the material speak for itself.