If you want a nostalgic film that leaves you feeling good, drop by “The Tender Bar.”
“The Tender Bar” is a memoir by J.R. Moehringer and now a movie directed by George Clooney, about the journey into manhood of a boy who grew up fatherless in Manhasset, L.I. The title is Moehringer’s tribute to his mom’s brother Charlie, the “tender bartender,” who brought him up in spite of their dysfunctional extended family, and with the help of a second extended family composed of the staff and patrons of the bar where Charlie worked.
The book was published in 2005, and I remember joining a book group discussion at the real-life Manhasset bar in question, which then (and now again) was called Publicans, at 550 Plandome Road. But I don’t remember much from that discussion — perhaps appropriately for a bar in what Moehringer describes as “my hard-drinking hometown — Manhasset, Long Island,” which is “famous for two things — lacrosse and liquor.”
The film is charming, as is Daniel Ranieri, who plays Young JR at about 9 years of age. His mom (nicely acted by Lily Rabe) has left her violent husband and returned with JR to her parents’ ramshackle home in Manhasset.
Daniel almost steals the show but not quite, because this is definitely Ben Affleck’s movie. In a star performance as JR’s Uncle Charlie, Affleck is a dispenser of beverages and, more importantly, advice — including on one subject that’s vital to the fatherless boy: “The Male Sciences.”
One day at the bar, Charlie explains: “You got your drink; your pack of butts (cigarettes); don’t keep your money in your shirt pocket like a drunk, that’s not correct. You know what you also do? You take care of your mother. And one more thing — very important. Never, under any circumstances, hit a woman. Even if she stabs you with scissors.”
Clooney directed and for the most part did an excellent job — by which I mean that he did not indulge in very many episodes of the kind of directorial “showing off” that distracts your attention from the story.
But there were a few such hiccups. For one, Manhasset residents will surely notice that the bar in the film looks nothing like their Publicans. In fact, Clooney shot everything in Massachusetts, including the scenes later on in the film, when JR finally justifies his mother’s irrational faith in him, and (spoiler!) gets into Yale, with a campus and dorm that I can tell you look nothing like Yale.
I’ll cut Clooney some slack on that, since it was all shot during COVID; perhaps he wanted to keep locations to a minimum in deference to cast and crew. Still, he should know that some great work has been shot here from the film “Meet the Parents,” to the TV series “The Royal Pains.”
I found another hiccup in some of the casting — notably the actor who plays JR’s blasé, preppy roommate Wesley. Here, Wesley is played by a baby-faced Rhenzy Feliz, who doesn’t seem to age a day in four years at Yale—and is Black.
It was hard for me to “buy” the scene where Wesley tells JR about his summer vacation. Wesley’s father had said “pick a city” to reward him for good grades and sent him to Venice, where three weeks somehow turned into all summer. My skepticism sent me back to the book, where I confirmed that Moehringer’s roommate was indeed a “legacy,” both at prep school and Yale — and definitely white.
“The Tender Bar” is a tender-hearted movie, with more bits of wisdom than most, and an enjoyable story. I hope Mr. Moehringer comes up with more tales, be they memoir or fiction, that someone can turn into equally enjoyable films in the future. Perhaps they will even see fit to film one on Long Island. If so, I know a good bar where they can feed and water the crew!