Affleck grew up with an alcoholic father. Maybe that connection is why he gives the best performance of his entire career.
The Tender Bar screenplay, by Academy Award winner William Monahan, is brilliant. It’s a huge challenge to capture the spirit of a beloved 400-page bestseller by masterfully whittling the story down to a mere 150 pages. Monahan met this goal with a sparkle.
The film is adapted from the 2005 memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning author J. R. Moehringer. It’s his coming-of-age story during the 1970s and 1980s. He grew up with a single mom, longing for his revered deejay father (The Voice), a drunkard who abandoned them. Despite having a successful radio career, The Voice moves constantly to avoid arrest for never paying child support.
Fatherless J.R. searches for his dad via the radio dials. When he hears the silky tones of The Voice, he talks to the radio to have a connection to his fantasy father. Mom (Lily Rabe) is fiercely protective and shuts the radio off whenever she’s available to do so. She is a single mom struggling to make enough money to raise her son. She’s also determined to get him into Yale or Harvard without any idea how.
The movie’s music, cars, and clothes effectively transport viewers to another place and time. Being swept away from reality is just what we need now. We are all so stressed about COVID-19 and its variants. Isolation, fear of a deadly disease, and a nation split with political unrest are contributing to anxiety levels so high, many of us who struggle with substance abuse disorder are barely holding on.
Gallows humor is what drives this story, making its engine purr. Many call it ‘a drama, but not.’ The Tender Bar is a dark comedy. Yes, there are Kleenex-worthy scenes, but those are moments of joy, not sadness. This is an uplifting story throughout. Sweet, yes, but served without saccharine.
In addition to Ben Affleck’s Oscar-worthy “Best Supporting Actor” performance, Clooney put together an all-star cast, including a previously unknown kid from Brooklyn named Daniel Ranieri. In early 2020, Ranieri became a viral sensation overnight when he lost his shit and gave a Joe Pesci-style expletive-laden rant. His mom caught it on video, then posted it. Ranieri became known as the “F**in Lockdown Kid.”
Lucky for Daniel, Jimmy Kimmel found the clip on Twitter and shared it on his show. After seeing the episode, George Clooney cast this kid – with zero training as an actor – to costar with Ben Affleck.
Heart-throb Tye Sheridan does a great job as college-age J.R. and Christopher Lloyd is hilarious as J.R.’s curmudgeonly Grandpa. Lily Rabe is perfect as J.R.’s determined mom. Newcomer Briana Middleton plays Sidney, a sexy temptress from a wealthy family whose parents have much higher hopes for their daughter than scruffy J.R. Actor Max Martini (oh, the irony) plays J.R.’s alcoholic, deadbeat father who serves up the bitter lemon twist in his son’s life.
While Clooney does not struggle with addiction, he cares deeply for his long-term buddy, Affleck. Clooney told The Times of London that he was worried about filming Affleck in a bar. Affleck has such a similar history to J.R. and a long history of relapse. It makes sense his friend Clooney was concerned.
Affleck grew up with an alcoholic father and other relatives who destroyed themselves with liquor. Maybe that connection is why he gives the best performance of his entire career. J.R.’s surrogate dad, Uncle Charlie, is the brightest light in this film. The chemistry with young J.R. provides some of the best moments in the film.
The ending shines. Much like Dorothy’s search for the Wizard, J.R. realizes that everything he thinks he needs, he already has.
The Tender Bar is now playing nationwide in theaters. It will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime on January 7, 2022. 106 minutes. Rated R.