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Review: Men fill a void in sweet film ‘The Tender Bar’

December 15, 2021 GMT
This image released by Amazon shows Ben Affleck, left, and Tye Sheridan in a scene from "The Tender Bar." (Claire Folger/Amazon via AP)
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This image released by Amazon shows Ben Affleck, left, and Tye Sheridan in a scene from "The Tender Bar." (Claire Folger/Amazon via AP)
1 of 5
This image released by Amazon shows Ben Affleck, left, and Tye Sheridan in a scene from "The Tender Bar." (Claire Folger/Amazon via AP)

If you’re ever thirsty on Long Island, look for a dive bar called The Dickens. It’s a nice place, from all accounts. There are books everywhere, a group of sweet, lovable locals and a bartender who is a good soul with a tough exterior. The barflies somehow know when the Magna Carta was signed — 1215, silly! — and will line up to buy you a round of gin martinis if you get into Yale.

Not sounding typical? Welcome to “The Tender Bar,” a coming-of-age film based on a real life that doesn’t feel entirely real. It’s a George Clooney-directed, Ben Affleck-starring celebration of men set in the ’70s and ’80s that uses a charmed life to say remarkably little.

“The Tender Bar” is the story of JR — first starring Daniel Ranieri as an 11-year-old and then Tye Sheridan as a young man — whose father left him and his mom when he was a kid and yet still haunts his son as a distant voice — he’s a DJ on the radio. A school psychologist theorizes that JR, whose very name, Junior, is derivative of a missing parent, has no identity.

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But a community of men — his uncle Charlie (Affleck), his crabby grandfather (Christopher Lloyd), his Yale friends and even a priest on a commuter rail — fill the void. They give JR advice, steer him and go to functions with him. The message is: Guys got this. If films could smell, this one would reek of cologne, cigars and leather.

JR’s mom — a wonderful Lily Rabe — is not much help, with only one real wish: that her son go to Yale and be a lawyer. It largely falls on uncle Charlie to teach JR the so-called “Manly Sciences” — take care of your mother, get a car, don’t hit women, save some cash in your wallet for emergencies and learn to change a tire, among them.

Affleck is getting award-season buzz but this role is tailor-made for him, equal parts roguishly cool, unflashy literary and bluntly honest. His Charlie is like that gruff but sweet guy from “Good Will Hunting” all grown up and running a bar, having traded blue-collar Boston for blue-collar Long Island.

The screenplay by William Monahan is based on the best-selling memoir of the same name by J.R. Moehringer. It’s got some great lines — “If you suck at writing, that’s when you become a journalist,” among them — but there is a meandering quality to the film, a lack of sharpness.

That’s partly because JR gets everything he seeks: Yale, a job at The New York Times, a career as a writer and even for a while, that unattainable rich girl. Whenever JR leaves the bar, the film fades, signaling that the focus should be tighter on Charlie and his nephew.

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There are intriguing touches of the way it might have gone, especially when JR and Charlie discuss how the narrative itself is going or can be shaped, like meta-level crafting. After a surprising turn in JR’s career, Charlie offers: “You can inflate it.” And later he suggests a plot twist: “If there’s gonna be any structure, you know what you have to do.” That means hunting down dad, of course.

“The Tender Bar” is a gentle, oddly crafted but loving look at men, fueled by a soundtrack of classics like Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and Steely Dan’s “Do It Again.” It’s a valentine to guys who step up. When a cop in one scene tells JR that he doesn’t get to pick who his father is, JR has the best reply: “Maybe.”

“The Tender Bar,” a Amazon Studios release, is rated R for “language throughout and some sexual content.” Running time: 105 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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Online: https://www.amazon.com/Tender-Bar-Ben-Affleck/dp/B09J67JJGC

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits