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Review: The Tender Bar Drowns in a Sea of Literary Tricks and Tips

November 29, 2021 08:30 | By
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Tye Sheridan (center) in The Tender Bar

I remember my “Intro to Literary Writing” course at Yale like it was yesterday. The coursebook had one tip and two tricks that all inexperienced authors should follow to create compelling stories during the time in which it took them to find their voice. The tip: write about what you know. The tricks: use repetition so that your readers remember something about your work and create a character that has ticks or trademarks that will also be memorable.  (The quintessential example, for the pedagogically curious, was Agatha Christie’s Poirot’s twirling of his waxed mustachios and incessant invocation of his “little grey cells.”) But this course was about writing literature, not about shooting movies, and it is at the shores of that over-learned lesson from Yale that George Clooney’s upcoming film The Tender Bar founders in.

The movie is based upon the memoir of J.R. Moehringer and produced by frequent Clooney collaborator Grant Heslov as well as Ted Hope. Another Clooney staple, Ben Affleck, plays a prominent supporting role as the lead character’s Poirot—his eccentric but affable and lovable Uncle Charlie. The main character is the author (writing about what he knows, his life), a young boy and then a young man played first by Daniel Ranieri and then by Tye Sheridan. Lily Rabe plays J.R.’s single mother Dorothy, and a flatulent Christopher Lloyd plays his grandfather. Eventually, we meet Sidney, a love interest played by Briana Middleton, and even the absent, nameless father — simply referred to as “The Voice” and played by Max Martini — shows up in a scene or three. 

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Daniel Ranieri (L) and Ben Affleck in The Tender Bar

The story is of J.R.’s entire but short life, growing up living with his mother and grandparents, under the tutelage of his Uncle Charlie (who owns the Dickens Bar,  at which J.R. learns all his life lessons), striving to get and then getting into college (Yale, duh), falling in and out of love, and getting a job. Every life is a worthwhile universe of wonder but with due respect to one particularly seeming pedestrian life such as the one I just described, not each of them needs the cinematic treatment. That one can describe the entire plot of a two-hour move in two sentences and less than fifty words does not compelling cinema make.

That said, it is clear early on that Mr. Moehringer is a talented, gifted writer. When he jokes that those of us that cannot write will become journalists—present company included—he is not wrong. Every once in a while, his screenplay shows flashes of what is clearly a beautifully written, prosaic novel (one which I have not had the pleasure of reading). Harry the young Prince wants him to write his own autobiography, for Pete’s sake. The guy obviously knows how to write… a novel.

For his screenplay, however, Mr. Moehringer overlearned those lessons from our introductory literary writing course back in New Haven. First is the repetition—initially amusing and ultimately tedious. J.R.—who disclaims but clearly has a daddy problem—does not want his initials to stand for “Jr.,” so makes up something clever each time someone asks him what J.R. stands for (no one actually does that in real life, folks), which almost every scene-credited actor does, including three times in a row during a particularly painful to watch scene where J.R. meets his freshman year roommates. J.R. also receives repeated advice from almost everyone in his life about writing, with all of them sardonically commenting that “memoirs are in,” in a terrible sign of self-justification that exposes the author’s own uncertainty about whether these proceedings have a point to begin with.

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Second, the characters tortured into being quirky. There is the grandpa, who farts and farts and farts repeatedly in one particularly senseless scene. There is the love interest, who is sexy but also mean and bad in ways that are never explained because we are still in “Intro to Writing,” not  the“Writing Characters with Depth” course.  J.R. talks to Sidney in one scene, dates her in the next, and then spends the next 25,000 repeating his unfounded obsessions for her. And finally, there is of course Uncle Charlie—the worst and best offender in the paroxysm of literary hoops and somersaults. Affleck is, to his credit, adorable and believable as the tender guys’ guy. His “masculinity lessons” for the young, fatherless J.R.—about not drinking too much and respecting women—are inoffensive and straightforward. His sayings are charming, until he becomes a mountain of nothing other than sayings and Boston-accented insults (though we are in Long Island). It’s all a set-up, all the outline of a final writing exam to impress that Yale teacher that talks about The Iliad and The Odyssey and would likely give this script and its indulgent direction a “D.”

Tech-wise, Clooney does not try very hard either though, to be fair, this is not exactly the sort of film that screams below-the-line bells and whistles. The best part is the bar itself, given that its name is “Dickens Bar” and the obviously necessary internal accompaniments. The art team consisting of Production Designer  Kalina Ivanov (Lovecraft Country), Art Director Bryan Felty, and Set Decorator Melissa Levander do an excellent job at setting the various locales—the Moehringer’s pretty shabby house in Long Island, the Tudor-styled, book-laden watering hole, the halls of Yale, the girlfriend’s lavish Westport house, the cubicles at the Times. Costume Designer Jenny Eagan (Knives Out) gives Affleck and Lily Rabe some perfectly muted but well-fitting late 70s and early 80s outfits, but nothing is too flashy. This is all supposed to be, after all, a literary affair.

The Tender Bar is that confounding movie with which there is nothing particularly wrong, but there is little if anything right. At bottom, the life story that has occurred to thousands if not millions of people—growing up on Long Island without a parent, going to an Ivy League school, moving to the city and struggling to find a job—is, respectfully, simply not compelling. No amount of literary how-tos can breathe life into the mundane, at least not on the silver screen, where other types of tricks are required, and other tips are better-suited.

Grade: C

The Tender Bar will be released by Amazon Studios in New York and L.A. on Dec. 17, 2021 before expanding to more cities on Dec. 22, and then will stream on Amazon Prime Video on January 7, 2022.

All photos courtesy and copyright Amazon.