The Tender Bar is based on a memoir by J.E. Moehringer, adapted by the screenwriter of The Departed and Kingdom of Heaven, William Monaghan. It’s a rose-colored remembrance of his youth and transition to adulthood, with an absentee father (whose voice he hears on the radio), a crusty but soft-hearted grandfather (Christopher Lloyd), and a loving, ever-present mother (Lily Rabe). The father-figure in his life is his amiable Uncle Charlie, a bartender (Ben Affleck) who dispenses sound, working-class wisdom on a regular basis.
The wide-eyed boy named JR is played by newcomer Daniel Ranieri, a “find” who effortlessly commands the screen without a hint of coyness. He learns the meaning of unconditional love from his mom and grudgingly comes to accept the fact that his father is never going to be there for him. Most of his life experiences are imparted to him by the guys who hang out at his uncle’s Long Island bar.
As the boy becomes a teenager his role is assumed by Tye Sheridan, who lends his own brand of credibility to the character of JR. He earns a scholarship to Yale, where he falls for a worldly coed (Briana Middleton) who is destined to break his heart—more than once.
The Tender Bar is an idealized coming-of-age story that isn’t blazingly original but consistently entertaining. Monahan wrote the screen adaptation of his own book and his authorial voice rings loud and clear. (In a more literal sense, the narration is read by Ron Livingston.)
The word I’m trying to avoid using is “nice” but there’s no getting around it. That, I suspect, is the reason the book appealed to director George Clooney and why he has shepherded it to film so well. Ben Affleck is a perfect Uncle Charlie and Lily Rabe is genuinely lovable as JR’s mom. And if you don’t think there’s room in this world for a nice movie every now and then, I wouldn’t want to have so much as a drink with you. The Tender Bar is now playing in limited theatrical release and will debut January 7 on Amazon Prime.