Since “The Tender Bar” is an adaptation of the journalist J.R. Moehringer’s best-selling memoir, it would be reasonable to assume that the star of the movie is Tye Sheridan (”Ready Player One,” “The Card Counter”). He plays JR, the Moehringer character. Nope, the real star is Ben Affleck, who plays the character’s barkeep uncle.
Currently in theaters, “The Tender Bar” starts streaming on Amazon Prime Jan. 7. George Clooney directed, and William Monahan (”The Departed”) did the script.
Affleck’s character is Charlie. “When you’re 11 years old,” JR says in a voice-over, “you want an Uncle Charlie.” When you’re any age, you’d want one. Charlie’s part father figure, part guidance counselor, part non-imaginary friend: expansive, smart, encouraging, raffish, a bit theatrical and larger than life. He’s a bookish boyo, a rare but not unknown combination, a fount of wisdom on what to read as well as on how to conduct yourself. George Orwell and Charles Dickens come highly recommended. The Dickens is the name of Charlie’s bar.
It’s one thing to be the sort of guy who drives an old Cadillac convertible. It’s quite another to be able to get away with it. Charlie’s both. Affleck plays him for all he’s worth, and that’s a lot. After “The Last Duel” and the hoo-boy! performance Affleck gave as a medieval French nobleman, it’s pure pleasure to see Affleck having such a good time here — and giving such good acting value.
JR is especially in need of a Charlie. It’s 1973, and his father (Max Martini, the “Fifty Shades” movies) is truly the dad from hell. Perhaps it’s just as well JR’s met him only once. He and his very long-suffering mom (Lily Rabe, ”The Underground Railroad,” Liz Cheney in “Vice”) are about to move in with Charlie and their parents. “We’re going home,” she tells him. “We’re going home. Again.” The way she pauses before “again” says it all.
The household is highly harum-scarum. (Define harum-scarum? Christopher Lloyd plays JR’s grandfather.) This emotional funkiness is good material for the aspiring writer JR will become. It’s a different story for the impressionable child he is. Daniel Ranieri plays the character before Sheridan takes over. In a year with several outstanding performances by little boys — Jude Hill, in “Belfast”; Woody Norman, in “C’mon C’mon” — Ranieri holds his own. The one downside is that this makes for an unfortunate contrast with Sheridan, who’s lumpen and uneasy.
JR is bookish and smart. “I swear to God,” his grandfather tells him, “I don’t know how, you’re going to Harvard or Yale.” It’s Yale. The movie’s sense of place and social texture loses a lot when it moves to New Haven. Things stay unmoored when JR embarks on a journalistic career. What remains steady is the wisdom of Uncle Charlie. “Always take philosophy,” he advises JR. “You do well in that class because there’s no right answer.”
“The Tender Bar” is the sort of movie that has contemporary pop music on the soundtrack do the work of feeling: “Radar Love” to start things off, a little Pablo Cruise as emotional reassurance (“Love Will Find a Way”), and so on. It’s amiable and unpretentious, if also slack and diffuse.
The sentimentality works against the most interesting thing in the movie, an alertness to the workings of class and status. JR’s Yale girlfriend drives a Volvo station wagon. You can bet it doesn’t get serviced at the same garage Charlie’s Caddy does. “Everything I see is unobtainable,” JR says at one point. He’s right, until he isn’t. Glossing over that discrepancy is a missed opportunity at something richer and deeper, if not at all cozy.
Moehringer grew up on Long Island, in Manhasset. That’s where much of the movie is set, along with Yale and, when The New York Times hires him, Manhattan. For what it’s worth, the Times scenes in “A Journal for Jordan,” which also opens this week, are a lot more plausible.
If the Yale campus looks familiar, that may be because the scenes were shot in Cambridge, at the former Episcopal Divinity School, now part of Lesley University. And if you’re wondering why Charlie and JR are bowling candlepins — on Long Island? — that’s because those scenes were shot at the Wakefield Bowladrome. Affleck isn’t the only local favorite who excels in “The Tender Bar.”
THE TENDER BAR
Directed by George Clooney. Written by William Monahan; based on J.R. Moehringer’s memoir. Starring Tye Sheridan, Ben Affleck, Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, Max Martini. At Kendall Square, Dedham Community, and the Cabot; starts streaming on Amazon Prime Jan. 7. 104 minutes. R (language, sexual content)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.