The Tender Bar (R16, 104mins) Directed by George Clooney ***½
Every 11-year-old needs an Uncle Charlie.
Someone who will never let you win and is always going to tell your truth – even if you’re no good at sports. A man who will advise you to take care of your money – and your mother – and will teach you how to change a tyre and jump-start a car.
For J.R. Moehringer (Daniel Ranieri), his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) was just the father figure he craved, as he once again came to live at his grandfather’s house (Christopher Lloyd) with his Mom (Lily Rabe).
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It was a home filled with “laughter, tears and the occasional nervous breakdown”, but it was the only place mother and son could turn after falling irretrievably behind on rent payments elsewhere. J.R. knew his ma always tried her best, but his feckless radio DJ father’s inability to contribute even a cent to his upbringing had crippled their prospects. Not that J.R. remembers much about him either.
With his mater having taken a pair of scissors to virtually every picture he was in, all the tween has is a vague memory of meeting him once long ago and a voice he can occasionally sneak a listen to.
Uncle Charlie has a pretty blunt assessment of his former brother-in-law that he’s more than happy to share with J.R: “He’s just an asshole who happens to be on the radio.”
So when a call comes out of the blue promising to take J.R. to a ballgame, Charlie is wary – and not surprised when the little guy is heartbreakingly stood up. Then, when a school counsellor tells J.R. “he has no identity”, it’s Charlie who goes into bat – not only “setting the record straight”, but offering J.R. full rein of his wardrobe full of books.
Like his sister, Charlie is determined to see J.R. make something of himself – whether it be at Harvard or Yale.
With its jukebox full of mid-1970s hits, emotive, extensive voiceover, pint-sized protagonist and succession of dramatic vignettes, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled onto a lost, later season of The Wonder Years. But director George Clooney’s adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir of growing up on Long Island, just never manages to convey the same warmth and heart as that beloved late-80s sitcom.
That’s perhaps down to the more sober, sombre subject matter. Unlike Kevin Arnold, J.R.’s home life is anything but stable, and he suffers a continuing series of rejections from his Winnie Cooper – Briana Middleton’s Sidney – that it makes Forrest Gump’s ongoing pursuit of Jenny’s affections seem restrained in comparison.
Not that The Tender Bar is without its charms – far from it. Affleck (Argo, The Way Back) is at his charismatic best as the avuncular Charlie, while Ranieri and Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One) as the adult J.R. both impress.
William Monahan’s (The Departed) screenplay is at its best in the lighter moments, a running “gag” about what J.R.’s initials stand for is a constant source of smiles, as are the patrons at Uncle Charlie’s bar The Dickens, but the predictable, episodic nature of the drama is where things stumble.
Never quite reaching the heights of Amazon’s similarly themed Paul Bettany starrer Uncle Frank, The Tender Bar is an entertaining, if not truly compelling, watch.
The Tender Bar is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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The Tender Bar: Ben Affleck piles on the charm in Clooney’s sombre Amazon drama