It’s taken the better part of three decades, but Ben Affleck, a two-time Academy Award winner (Argo, Good Will Hunting) for producing and screenwriting, finally seems to have found his niche as an actor. In just the last two years, Affleck has delivered arguably two of his best, most memorable performances—first as a high-school basketball coach struggling with alcoholism (paralleling Affleck’s own real-life struggles) in 2020’s The Way Back and just two months ago, as the feudal frat-bro in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel. Affleck adds another note- and possibly awards-worthy role to his career resume with his thoughtful, grounded performance as a compassionate bartender-philosopher in George Clooney’s otherwise middling adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J. R. Moehringer’s well-received 2005 memoir, The Tender Bar.
Though Affleck’s character, Charlie, emotionally anchors The Tender Bar, he’s not the nominal lead character. That role belongs to the fatherless J.R. (Daniel Ranieri as a preteen, Tye Sheridan as a young adult). Not so quietly traumatized by the perpetual absence of his deadbeat, biological father, Johnny Michaels (Max Martini), a young J.R. finds himself gravitating towards his uncle—the well-read proprietor and bartender of a blue-collar Long Island bar, The Dickens. While J.R.’s mother (Lily Rabe) attempts to adjust to radically changed personal and professional circumstances, she moves back to her bustling childhood home and to a semi-permanent reunion with her eccentric, flatulent father (Christopher Lloyd), a deferential mother (Sondra James), sister Ruth (Danielle Ranieri), and the ever-present Charlie.
With the spectre of his absent father hovering off-frame, understandably impacting his sense of self-worth and emotional stability, J.R. naturally gravitates toward his wiser-than-wise bartending uncle, picking up life lessons along with an unconventional support system from the bar’s working-class regulars. Charlie leads J.R. into becoming a voracious reader, suggesting J.R. can learn as much from the books Charlie keeps behind the bar as any actual lived experience. Even as J.R. develops a desire to become a writer (spoiler: J.R. becomes one), Charlie remains a potent, formative influence on J.R.’s young life, counselling J.R. on everything from romantic relationships to his potentially volatile emotions when he tries to reconnect with the biological father who abandoned him.
That meeting between a vulnerable J.R. and his biological father gives The Tender Bar the equivalent of a dramatic turning point, but it lacks the emotional wallop Clooney, adopting a muted, almost minimalist shooting style to match a muted colour scheme, obviously wants. Instead, it ends up feeling like another incident in a string of vaguely connected events in the young, semi-interesting life of a wannabe writer. Not surprisingly, it’s the quieter moments between Charlie and J.R. (preteen, teen, and post-teen) that elevate The Tender Bar into watchable territory, primarily due to Affleck’s layered, nuanced performance as Charlie. It’s easily one of his best, boding well for Affleck’s mid- to late-career turn as a dramatic actor, a welcome change from the lesser demanding roles in blockbusters that have earned Affleck large paycheques but few accolades.