Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A writer's journey begins at a bar


    Some thoughts after watching The Tender Bar, the big-screen adaptation of JR Moehringer's 2005 memoir about growing up in Manhasset, NY: I'll get to a review of the movie in a bit, but I left s preview screening with two thoughts I couldn’t shake.
   First, Ben Affleck is getting better and better as an actor. He was terrific as the flamboyant Pierre d'Alencon in The Last Duel and equally good as a beer-soaked alcoholic in The Way Back, the story of a high school basketball coach wobbling toward redemption.
   In The Tender Bar, Affleck scores again as Uncle Charlie, a bartender who schools his nephew JR, the story's ostensible main character, in a variety of arts -- thinking, reading, drinking, and the behavior of men.
   A bachelor and barroom philosopher, Uncle Charle proves vital to young JR's survival -- and also to the movie's.
    Observation two: I wish I could say that George Clooney was getting more interesting as a director.
   Clooney started with the brilliant Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and followed with the solid Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) but his Midnight Sky (2020) foundered (at least in my view) and The Tender Bar, with a screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed), doesn’t meet expectations, either.
  Moehringer, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, wrote a well-received memoir but the movie feels cut from pieces of variable interest. 
   Played by Daniel Ranieri as a nine-year-old boy and as a young man by Tye Sheridan, JR wants to be a writer but the movie never persuades us that we should care whether he achieves his goal. 
  It's not JR's dream that made his book enjoyable; it was his practice of the writer's art, which he brought into play when dealing with the bar -- named the Dickens. Uncle Charlie presided over the Dickens and its  cast of oddball characters who gathered for fun, solace, and moments of commemoration.
   On screen, the story becomes a collection of episodes joined by several themes: The absentee father, the devoted Mom, and JR's initiation into the world of love. None of these land with much force.
   JR's biological father (Max Martini) is barely a presence in his life. He's a New York disc jockey who JR's family calls "The Voice." Abusive and prone to drink, he's hated by JR's mom (a warm Lily Rabe). 
    Rabe's Dorothy has one dream for young JR. He'll attend either Harvard or Yale. He's going to get a first-rate education.
    JR, by the way, attends Yale, where -- in the movie version -- he tells friends that he wants to be a writer. He also meets a young woman (Briana Middleton), a biracial student whose snooty architect parents make it clear they have little use for someone of JR's low breeding.
   The movie works overtime trying to establish JR's working-class bona fides; he may be a Yalie, but he's more a graduate of the bar and of his unruly family than of the prestigious university. 
   Christopher Lloyd portrays JR's grandfather, a grump who comes through for JR when it counts.
   The picture loses focus as JR steps into the "real" world, landing a job as a copy boy at the New York Times and trying to figure out next steps.
    Sheridan may be stuck with a thankless job. If JR entertained as a writer; Sheridan can't entertain by telling us he wants to be a writer.
   The story weakens whenever Uncle Charlie isn't around and feels far more comfortable with scenes in the bar than anywhere else.
   Enough. The Tender Bar generates neither antagonism nor deep affection. Put another way: If you haven’t read the book, you’d do well to start there.

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