“The Tender Bar” just earned Ben Affleck a deserved SAG Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but this isn’t Oscar bait that sacrifices audience connection for artistry.
The Amazon coming-of-age flick is truly heartfelt, providing a career renaissance for Affleck in what may be George Clooney’s best directorial effort since “The Ides of March” (2011) and maybe even since his career masterpiece “Good Night and Good Luck” (2005).
Based on the 2005 memoir by J. R. Moehringer, the film follows 9-year-old JR Maguire growing up in 1970s Long Island. His single mother Dorothy moves him back in with his grandparents where he bonds with his Uncle Charlie, who owns a local bar, The Dickens.
At age 25, Tye Sheridan gives his most mature performance in a career launched by Terence Malick’s lyrical masterpiece “The Tree of Life” (2011) and Jeff Nichols’ Twain-esque “Mud” (2012). He can carry blockbuster IP like comic-books (“X-Men: Apocalypse”) and video games (“Ready Player One”) or original indies like “The Card Counter” (2021).
He may grow up to be Affleck, who epitomizes America’s quest to build up celebrities and tear them down. How else do you explain him winning an Oscar for co-writing “Good Will Hunting” (1997), tanking with “Gigli” (2003), making an Oscar-winning comeback directing “Argo” (2012), then tanking again with personal tabloid drama and sad Batman memes?
“The Tender Bar” joins “The Way Back” (2020) and “The Last Duel” (2021) to complete his second Hollywood rehabilitation for a promising third chapter to his career. It will again make you a believer in Affleck’s ability to disappear into a role, getting back to his “Good Will Hunting” roots but now as the Robin Williams mentor insisting, “It’s not your fault.”
Affleck’s father-figure camaraderie with child star Daniel Ranieri is gold, saying, “Two rules: I’m never going to let you win and I’m always going to tell you the truth.” He shows his nephew the ropes of “the male sciences,” saying, “Don’t ever hit a woman, even if she stabs you with scissors,” and, “If you read enough [books], you could become a writer.”
This Uncle Charlie is the opposite of Joseph Cotten in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), healing a broken family rather than exploding it. The divisive force here is JR’s absent father, played by Max Martini (“13 Hours”) as a distant DJ voice on the radio, routinely switched off by his resilient mother in a great role by Lily Rabe (“The Undoing”).
Likewise, Christopher Lloyd (“Back to the Future”) is a lovable grandpa, hilariously denying his La-Z-Boy flatulence, while delivering heartwarming moments: “Don’t tell anyone I’m a good grandfather or everybody will want one.” This dashboard conversation recalls Ciarán Hinds in “Belfast” (2021) and Richard Gant in ABC’s new “The Wonder Years” (2021).
JR’s dysfunctional family is captured in loving detail by Clooney, staging shots with family members at the dinner table in the foreground while others appear through a “frame within a frame” in the kitchen background. The result is a portrait of a working-class family that has it all, even if society thinks they don’t. It’s up to us, and JR, to learn to appreciate it.
His epiphany comes after visiting the snooty parents of his wealthy college crush Sidney (Briana Middleton), who keeps him at arm’s length as her sidepiece. Rather than a cliché where his fear of abandonment makes him afraid to commit, the screenplay shows him desperate to stay with her even though she mistreats him — just like his absent father.
It’s the deftest touch by screenwriter William Monahan, who won an Oscar adapting “The Departed” (2006). His script never drags, intercutting the coming-of-age story of Young JR (Ranieri) with the parallel action of Adult JR (Sheridan) riding a train toward an unwritten Ivy League future that could mean law school or journalist bylines in The New York Times.
By the end, when Affleck sends Sheridan on his way with a grin and a quip, “Don’t say I never got you nothing,” you’ll feel the same heartwarming possibility like you did when Affleck shoved Matt Damon on the road to discover himself, driving toward the horizon.
“The Tender Bar” may not be the most original cocktail that you’ve ever tasted, but it is the warmest of human comforts like sitting down on your favorite stool at your favorite bar with your favorite regulars to order your favorite drink from your favorite bartender. Fortunately for us, if we already have an Amazon Prime Video subscription, this one’s on the house.