The Tender Bar (Review)
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
I had the opportunity during a period of my life to spend time in a Barnes & Noble close to my place of employment browsing their shelves before and after work. If a book grabbed my attention I would sit for an hour or so and read it through. This happened with J. R. Moehringer's memoir "The Tender Bar." Except I purchased this book because I couldn't wait for my next visit to continue.
I felt a common bond with Mr. Moehringer's life story. We were both interested in drinking, writing and literature. He found his way to Yale from a middle-class family on Long Island and how he got there is full of colorful characters and entertaining stories. What appealed to me were all the people he came in contact with who helped him discover literature and fan the flames of his interest. These characters rekindled my flame as well. As I read "The Tender Bar" I could picture each scene in my head and thought how this would make a great mini-series. Every page was rich in lore and a love letter to literature. It was a book whose nuances couldn't be captured by a two-hour movie.
So it is with some trepidation that I heard a movie was going to be made. I was pleased when I saw the professionals involved including George Clooney directing. But I kept asking myself how are they going to put all that rich detail into a single film? I knew the answer, of course, but was still curious to see what the final product would look like. I have a rule when it comes to movies made from literature. Well, not really a rule since timing plays a role, but I tell myself it's better to watch the movie before I read the book because I'm always disappointed with the results- e.g., "Jurassic Park," "The Alienist" and "A Time to Kill."
I'm also aware of the handcuffs put on filmmakers when they decide to capture a piece of literature on film. A two-hour movie can only, if done well, bring out the richness from about fifty pages of the novel. So the question becomes what story from the book should we tell? That's a hard question. "The Tender Bar" has lifted three of those stories to use in the film and molded a fourth within the rest. Its not bad, what they use for the film and Mr. Clooney is aided by some superb performances.
Daniel Ranieri and Tye Sheridan play the title character J. R as child and young adult respectively. They do a creditable job and Mr. Sheridan did make me forget about the book and locked me into the story he was carrying. Lily Rabe plays the mother who almost wills her child's future. She has a goal for him although you don't see what she does to prepare him for her grand ambitions. Ms. Rabe is fabulous playing a woman who's at the lowest point in her life; having to move back into her father's house. She can't get any support from J.R's father (Max Martini) so her only hope is for her son to be successful. Ms. Rabe could have been sappy but she plays this character with dignity.
Mr. Martini is a force as J. R's father. We don't see much of him but his presence is felt throughout the first part of "The Tender Bar." When we do see him he is a threat, someone who brings more trouble than relief. Mr. Martini is perfect. He doesn't overdo it and doesn't have to. He's got this character down and even though he is menacing I wanted to see Mr. Martini do more of his thing. The casting of Christopher Lloyd as the grandfather was a good choice but handled poorly. For the film Mr. Lloyd is wonderful as an annoyed patriarch who has to deal with all of his grown children coming back to live with him. In the novel however, the grandfather is a cantankerous miserable man who is hardened by life and has no sympathy or love to hand out to anyone in his family. He is so irritable that I was hoping J. R's mother would move out of the house just so I wouldn't have to read about him again. But it is what makes for a great and emotional scene when J. R is confronted with a "bring your father to breakfast day" at school. The grandfather, seeing the distress in his grandson, volunteers to accompany him. That day we see a whole transformation and learn, along with J. R, the depths that his grandfather has been covering up. Mr. Clooney didn't have the time to focus on the grandfather's personalities but it did lessen the impact of that scene which was very powerful in the book.
The role of J. R's Uncle Charlie, who is an influential figure in his life, is played by Ben Affleck. Mr. Affleck is an interesting case as far as actors are concerned. He has a lot of hits and misses. His misses tend to come when he "tries" too hard. His roles in "Shakespeare in Love," "Batman" and "Argo" there's a sense too much effort. When Mr. Affleck plays the average guy his grasp of the role is tighter and you feel his confidence. The role of Charlie is safe in Mr. Afflecks hands and it is when he's on the screen that the novel is forgotten. Uncle Charlie's role in the film has been manipulated to fit the medium but Mr. Affleck's performance relieves this reviewer's disappointment. His naturalness and warmth with both J. Rs are fun to watch.
Mr. Clooney has done what he could to bring a lively and busy memoir to life in a two-hour film. It will disappoint the fans of the book but he did a solid job of putting enough heart and feeling into it that the movie can stand on its own. The cast is superb and just watching them do their thing is enough to forget about the wonders of the novel.