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.
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.
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.