It has been a matter of some public shame to this critic that I enjoy a truly awful hit single; Toploader’s Dancing in the Moonlight, something only to be played loud when listening in to the car radio and when alone. Thanks to director George Clooney and his eclectic soundtrack to The Tender Bar, I discovered that this tuneful song was originally a hit for King Harvest in 1972, and I can now enjoy this original recording without experiencing Toploader-based distress.
That’s not the only boast of The Tender Bar; it’s one of these ‘the wonder of me’ stories that writers create to mythologise themselves, and J. R. Moehringer is the writer responsible. On this evidence, Moehringer is quite a perverse character in that every failure he experiences, as a writer, seems to increase his certainty that writing is the correct profession for him. We see JR as a child, and then as an adult (played by Tye Sheridan), getting turned down by The New York Times, getting rejected by his girlfriend, and generally struggling to find his place in life on Long Island. It’s standard issue stuff for a rites-of-passage scenario, and William Monahan’s verbose script doesn’t do much to bring the premise to life; with an absent father, single mother, aspirations to Yale, a journalism job and learning experiences with a friendly local bartender, what seems remarkable that Moehringer’s life-story so closely resembles Rory’s coming-of-age narrative in tv show The Gilmore Girls.
And yet there’s a reason for reviewing this rather ordinary film, and that reason comes in the form of Ben Affleck. It’s no easy thing to give a great performance in an average movie, but Affleck somehow manages that feat as JR’s Uncle Charlie, a loquacious owner of a bar called The Dickens with a passion for drinking, smoking and books; presumably the enthusiasms of a large number of The Tender Bar’s literary fans. Affleck is a seasoned, respected actor who seems to have been encouraged to play up his dour side, as actors playing Batman often seem to be; Clooney would know this too having also pulled a shift as the gravel-voiced superhero. But Uncle Charlie turns out to be a super-lively, Runyon-esque character, far more influential than JR’s deadbeat dad, who worryingly sees his role as passing information from ‘one swinging dick to another…’ Instead, Uncle Charlie is more concerned with dispensing wry bar-rom homilies, flaunting his considerable reading and taking an active interest in his nephew’s development, and his considerable presence enlivens a cliched scenario.
Otherwise, there’s some great soundtrack music (from Linda Ronstadt to yes, Golden Earring), some faux literary dialogue (even Brideshead Revisited gets a wink) and a general warm and fuzzy feeling for the past; The Tender Bar goes down easily enough. But films about great writers have to establish bona fides, and without any examples of Moehringer’s actual writing offered as evidence, there’s precious little evidence of his talents in Clooney’s hazy movie, which Affleck’s awards-worthy supporting performance really does do all the heavy lifting for.
The Tender Bar is on Amazon Prime UK from Jan 7th 2022. Thanks to Amazon for access.