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The Tender Bar: Men who stare at books

George Clooney's The Tender Bar, starring Ben Affleck, is about the way we romanticise our heroes, and the things they say that shape us

Ben Affleck and (right) Tye Sheridan in ‘The Tender Bar’. Image via AP
Ben Affleck and (right) Tye Sheridan in ‘The Tender Bar’. Image via AP

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Role models do not have to be infallible. The all-important ‘Uncle Charlie’ in George Clooney’s touching new film, The Tender Bar — out now on Amazon Prime Video — is a remarkably, almost cartoonishly, inspirational figure to a fatherless young boy. Yet the one time Charlie tries to pick a fight, he gets thrown to the ground and walloped. To JR, it doesn’t matter that this dashing, athletic uncle can’t fight. It matters a whole lot more that he led him to the right books — much the way that I will always remember, with gratitude and a certain rose-tinted heroism, the uncle who gifted me my first Asterix. 

The Tender Bar, based on an acclaimed memoir of the same name by Pulitzer-winning journalist JR Moehringer, is about the way we romanticise our heroes, and the things they say that shape us. 

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It begins like a straightforward account of a troubled childhood with a boy (Daniel Ranieri) growing up without a father but blessed by the gallantry of an advice-dispensing uncle, a man who runs a bar stocked with hardback novels. Much pleasure can be had in watching Ranieri — an adorable, wise-eyed young actor who, in a different cinematic age, could have read Balzac and stolen a typewriter — form precocious bonds with the grown-ups in Manhasset, that little Long Island town F Scott Fitzgerald had transformed into the fictional East Egg in The Great Gatsby

The Tender Bar tells a warm story, even too sentimental. Yet once you look closely, it becomes apparent that everyone around JR — from his grandfather (the one and only Christopher Lloyd) to a priest he meets on a train — feels compelled to tell young JR about their lives and learnings. It reminded me of Danny Boyle’s audacious Steve Jobs biopic that divided the icon’s life into three product launches, where the most important people keep showing up before he goes onstage. Here, as young JR begins working on his book— the book that will, in time, become this film — the three most important people in his life variously tell the author-to-be that “publishing is heading toward memoir.” 

This is truest for his Uncle Charlie, a beautiful man played beautifully by Ben Affleck. Charlie — who has named his bar The Dickens and wears pictures of the David Copperfield author on his baseball shirt — fills JR’s eager young years with advice and aphorisms. He recognises the boy’s sporting incompetence, asks him to read a wardrobe-ful of books but not discuss them, and, when advising JR on his college courses, recommends that he choose Philosophy. “You always do well in that class because there’s no right answer.”

Uncles can help you unravel the world more recklessly than most fathers. Bathed in soft light and a worshipping gaze, Affleck’s Charlie is presented as an unreal ideal-man teaching his nephew the Male Sciences. He is literary and liberal, poetic and practical, easy-going and surrounded by slackers, yet forever drawing up codes of conduct. When the young boy looks up at the books stacked behind the bar and asks if he can read them, Charlie lights up like a neon sign. “Fill yourself up,” he says, a bartender to the bone. 

(Later, he tells JR not to drink as much — as much a bartender’s job as to fill the glass.)

“Like love affairs,” Moehringer wrote in the memoir, “bars depend on a delicate mix of timing, chemistry, lighting, luck and—maybe above all—generosity. From the start, Steve declared that no one at Dickens would feel slighted. His burgers would be three-inch soufflés of filet mignon, his closing time would be negotiable, no matter what the law said, and his bartenders would give an extra—extra—long pour. A standard drink at Dickens would be a double anywhere else. A double would leave you cross-eyed.”

Steve in the book becomes Charlie in the film, but Clooney distils precisely that generosity of spirit in The Tender Bar. This is a wide-eyed, dreamy film about hope and humanity, and the wildly romantic idea that curious young people can open the world up to themselves by that most bartenderly of skills: by listening. 

Clooney compels us to listen. We get to know Charlie through JRs idolising eyes, we get to see his grandfather in sharp focus on the one day he got dressed up for the boy, we get to hear the author’s versions — fermented with hindsight and experience — of the internal monologues and deepest revelations of things people said to him. They may in life have said nothing, but in this film they sit him down and tell him all. 

In one scene, the filmmaker rolls up his sleeves and spells out his trick. Charlie is lying in a hospital bed, talking to JR, now a young writer, and they are discussing how to take a real-life event and turn it into literature. “You can inflate this,” suggests Charlie. JR agrees, and adds, “You can tell me something really important.” 

Also read: The Lost Daughter: Parent, trapped

“Every regular at Steve's bar was fond of metaphors,” Moehwringer wrote. “One old bourbon drinker told me that a man's life is all a matter of mountains and caves—mountains we must climb, caves where we hide when we can't face our mountains. For me the bar was both. My most luxuriant cave, my most perilous mountain. And its men, though cavemen at heart, were my Sherpas.”

The term ‘proof alcohol’ came into use in the 1500s, when liquor that contained enough alcohol to set fire to gunpowder was labelled proof, and was then taxed higher. The Tender Bar is all gunpowder, all fire. Clooney pours an unadulterated glug of wisdom into a freshly-wiped glass and slides it flamboyantly across. There is little room for ice, or niceties. When we look back, what remain are the stories. This film is proof.

Streaming tip of the week:

Russell Howard’s Lubricant (Netflix) is a two-part comedy special where the refreshingly silly comedian riffs about everything from the ugliness of the English to easily offended audiences to — perhaps most importantly — making sure he can be the fun uncle to his impressionable nephews.

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