“Grandpa’s house was a revolving door of cousins and aunts, with a full complement of laughter and tears, with an occasional nervous breakdown. But above all, it’s where Uncle Charlie lived.”
The Tender Bar, directed by George Clooney and based on a memoir by J.R. Moehringer, can be characterized as a coming-of-age story, but it veers a bit into the philosophy of masculinity. While the film is very male-oriented, its story is appealing enough that women should find it enjoyable as well.
It begins in 1973 when nine year old, J.R. Maquire (Daniel Ranieri, later Tye Sheridan) moves with his mother (Lily Rabe) into her father’s house, an event she views as a sign of failure, but J.R. finds exciting. His father abandoned them long ago. He is a semi-nomadic radio DJ who J.R. refers to as The Voice—after all, that is about all J.R. knows of him. Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) is a curmudgeon who seems to resent having his adult children back in his house. (But at least he is willing to help support them.)
J.R. finds an important role model in his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck). Charlie is a bar tender at a local dive, The Dickens. It is there that Charlie (and some of the barflies that are always there) teach J.R. what Charlie refers to as the “male sciences”, simple rules of how to live and especially how to treat women. (The prime directive in these sciences is “You don’t hit a woman, ever, up to and including if she has stabbed you with scissors.”) Charlie is something of an autodidact philosopher. He seems to have read everything, and makes sure that J.R., who wants to be a writer, reads it as well.
J.R.’s mother is laser-focused on him going to an Ivy League school, even though there’s no way she could afford it. In time he is accepted to Yale on scholarship, and the film explores his life there, and continues to build on Charlie’s life training. At Yale he falls in love with a beautiful and bright young woman (Briana Middleton). The relationship with her is something that teaches J.R. about trials that he cannot control.
J.R., with the help of family (which includes the patrons of The Dickens) and friends, slowly negotiates life without his father, life at Yale where he feels out of place, and entering adulthood with confidence—enough to face his father and to assert himself.
For all the “male science” aspect of Charlie’s mentorship of J.R., the philosophy that he teaches is applicable to all people. It can be summed up is a few important concepts: kindness, honesty, and honor. I don’t think Charlie ever uses those words, but through the instructions he gives J.R.—and through his actions—those ideas are clear. Such a view of life is certainly in line with Paul’s comment: “…Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8 NRSV)
The Tender Bar is in theaters and is streaming on Prime Video
Photos courtesy of Amazon Content Services.