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Ben Affleck has been on quite a run lately. In early 2020, the Cambridge native gave a winning performance in “The Way Back,” playing a downtrodden high school basketball coach whose alcoholism paralleled the actor’s real-life issues. In “The Last Duel,” Affleck stole the show from the film’s three leads (Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer), gleefully chewing scenery as a hedonistic aristocrat. In “The Tender Bar,” the George Clooney-directed family drama which was filmed in the Boston area and is now playing in select theaters, Affleck makes it three-for-three, once again giving a performance that’s the best part of the movie.
Given that the film is based on J.R. Moehringer’s memoir of the same name, one could reasonably expect that its protagonist would be J.R. himself, played as a child by newcomer Daniel Ranieri and as a 20-something by Tye Sheridan (“Ready Player One”). The story tracks J.R.’s early life growing up poor on Long Island (depicted onscreen by North Shore towns like Beverly), shouldering the hopes and dreams of his anxious mother (Lily Rabe) while pining after his absent father.
Instead, for much of the film, it’s J.R.’s uncle Charlie (Affleck) who is the real star. First billed in the opening credits for good reason, Charlie takes J.R. under his wing, dispensing wisdom, instilling confidence, and generally serving as a father figure for his young nephew while slinging drinks at Darwin’s Bar.
The film begins with J.R. and his mother moving into the home of his grandpa (Christopher Lloyd). From moment one, when Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” blares through the sputtering car’s speakers, J.R. is glued to the radio. Day in and day out, he listens to the disembodied voice of his absentee father, who abandoned the pair and continues to work as a D.J. in Manhattan.
Most of the film’s plot — of which there is little — plays out in pretty conventional fashion, tracking J.R.’s growth from a thoughtful, intelligent child into a Yale student whose upbringing fosters a hunger to prove himself. “The Tender Bar” is less about the journey than the people who populate it. Along with his mother, uncle, and grandparents, J.R. drinks in the life experiences of his mom’s siblings, their kids, his college roommates, and the endless one-liners delivered by regulars at Uncle Charlie’s bar.
As a character-driven drama, “The Tender Bar” hinges on its performances. Affleck plays Uncle Charlie with a casual confidence, portraying a man who was pretty smart in school (when he felt like going), and has quietly made peace with never living up to his fullest potential. As J.R.’s mother, Rabe brings the exact opposite energy, breaking into tears at the drop of a hat and incessantly telling J.R. that he is the family’s greatest hope. “Your mother has had a tough life,” Charlie tells J.R., and between health scares, job loss, and the return of J.R.’s alcoholic dad, it’s hard to disagree.
When J.R. makes it to Yale (played on-screen by Lesley College in Cambridge) in the film’s second half, the strongest performance comes from newcomer Briana Middleton, a well-to-do student with whom J.R. has an on-again, off-again relationship throughout college and into his early 20s. She sees him for who he really is: A young man who’s eager to live up to his family and friends’ wishes but hasn’t paused to consider what he really wants out of life.
The relatively empty plot of “The Tender Bar” means that large portions of the film are essentially Uncle Charlie throwing out bromides like “Always take philosophy: You do well in that class because there’s no right answer” ad nauseum. The screenplay, adapted from Mohringer’s memoir by William Monahan, is heavy-handed with its absentee father symbolism. In almost every scene where J.R. meets someone new, the first question they ask is implausibly what “J.R.” stands for. (It stands for “Junior,” but J.R. says it stands for nothing.) In the very first scene at J.R.’s elementary school, his teacher announces a very important father-son dinner. (J.R. brings his grandpa instead.)
Of the two J.R.s, it’s the veteran actor (Sheridan) and not the brand-new child actor (Ranieri) who fares worse. His young adult J.R. is a blank slate by design, but Sheridan imbues him with such studied indifference that it can be hard to root for him on his coming-of-age journey.
“The Tender Bar” is a relic from another era, and not just because of its 1970s setting. Film rights for the novel were first optioned more than a decade ago, and the story has no urgent social message, no underdog overcoming long odds, and no grand plot arc to speak of. Instead, it hangs its hat on the strength of its performers, and succeeds in modest fashion.
If you’re looking for a conventional but perfectly pleasant drama to watch this holiday season, “The Tender Bar” delivers the goods, especially when Affleck and Rabe are on screen. That said, given the relatively small number of theaters it’s playing in locally (as of now, it’s showing in Cambridge, Dedham, and Beverly) and the short exclusive theatrical window before it begins streaming, you can probably wait until Jan. 7, 2022, when “The Tender Bar” is released on Amazon Prime Video.
Rating: Two and a half stars (out of four).
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