As George Clooney’s “The Tender Bar,” which opened on the 17th in LA and New York, expands to other cities on December 22nd and streams on Amazon Prime on January 7th, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of warm familiarity with J. R. Moehringer’s memoir.
Perhaps it is the cast that Clooney assembled. Tye Sheridan, who has chiefly done work in YA films and brought his strong presence to Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter” as Cirk earlier this year, stars as the college-aged Moehringer. We meet him on a train ride at the film’s beginning and we don’t know much about him. A priest sits down next to him, and they discuss life; we learn in a few minutes that Moehringer wants to be a writer and is on his way to college at Yale. We also understand that his father abandoned him as a baby, and his mother, Dorothy (Lily Rabe), has spent his whole life making sure that he had what he needed. Clooney flashes back to his early teens (Daniel Ranieri plays the younger Moehringer), bonding with his uncle, Charlie (Ben Affleck). Charlie runs a bar, The Dickens, and it is here, amongst the crowd, that Moehringer learns the classics; “Uncle Charlie must know a thing or two.”
Clooney’s focus on the life lessons that Charlie and Dorothy have to teach J. R. isn’t limited to the bar. William Monahan’s script delves into Moehringer’s backstory, transitioning from college to childhood. Affleck’s performance is this film’s strength. Sure, he’s a wise-crack, smokes, and drinks too much, but he cares for his nephew’s well-being.
Even amongst the cynicism, the warmth and care are displayed by the characters and supported with hard-edged laughter courtesy of Grandpa, played by the magnificent Christopher Lloyd. His take on the role reminds me of Bruce Dern’s Oscar-nominated take in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” Lloyd is rough and tumbled as he puts a roof over everyone’s heads. Clooney and Monahan pay particular attention to a tender moment between grandfather and son when Moehringer needs to bring a father to school breakfast. Lloyd, all dressed up to the nines, Clooney’s use of the frame shows just how important this moment is for both of them, a credit to cinematographer Martin Ruhe’s setups.
There is a cold side to “The Tender Bar,” especially when it comes to Papa Moehringer, a voice on the radio. Moehringer and his father meet when Moehringer is a child and again when he is in his early 20s. It is the pilgrimage that Moehringer makes to visit his father where we bear witness to a “what might have been” moment in the film. The result of the scene is that Moehringer knows what his father stands for.
Moehringer has an ongoing, tepid love affair with Sidney (Briana Middleton.) Sidney comes from a wealthy family, and the scene staged at their home shows just how awkward Moehringer was, a credit to Sheridan’s performance. Their relationship is based on brinksmanship and one-upping, with Sidney teaching Moehringer the best life lesson possible.
The warmth extends into the cinematography. Even as Moehringer sets up shop in New York City, his cramped, tiny apartment is always brightly lit – there is hope for this character and his life. Even as he is handed bad news following an internship at the New York Times, Sheridan has a smirk on his face, a look of incredulity that he wasted his time and if Affleck were in the room with him, he’d have reacted the same way. Moehringer had good life teachers.
Why am I reflecting so much on the warmth present in Clooney’s “The Tender Bar”? At its heart is a story of family, of bonding, of finding a path and a passion in one’s life, of not settling for anything but the actual objective. Some will look at “The Tender Bar” and go “eh.” For me, it reminded me fondly of the inherent warmth of Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys.” Clooney’s film is that smart, that endearing and crass, that only a writer whose memoir is the basis for a screenplay could be.
The Tender Bar
Directed by George Clooney
Screenplay by William Monahan, based on “The Tender Bar,” by J. R. Moehringer
Starring Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Lilly Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, Daniel Ranieri
R, 106 minutes, Amazon Studios