The Tender Bar debuted in December 2021 to mixed reviews from critics. Ben Affleck’s masterful performance has earned him a Golden Globe Award nomination, but the film’s quality remains a contentious issue. The Tender Bar is another George Clooney passion project – a film made to tell a story rather than earn millions in the box office.
Tye Sheridan plays the role of J.R. Maguire, a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s without guidance from his father. Maguire gets life advice from his Uncle, Charlie, and the patrons in Charlie’s bar, Dickens. Instead of one father, J.R. gets a fair few who help the boy forge his path in life.
The Tender Bar is based on the real-life experiences of J.R. Moehringer
The Tender Bar is based on J.R. Moehringer’s memoir with a similar name. Moehringer grew up in a bar after his father left when he was seven months old.
J.R.’s mother wanted him to have a father figure, so she let him spend time with Uncle Charlie in his bar. At Dickens, he found a community willing to guide him. J.R. told NPR:
“We went there when we didn’t know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love of sex or trouble for someone who had gone missing because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.”
Moehringer grew up 140 odd steps from the bar with his mother and grandparents. He spent a lot of time in the bar watching men gamble and insult each other. Some might not consider a bar the best place to raise a child, but Moehringer’s mom didn’t mind.
As time went by, Moehringer developed meaningful relationships with Dickens’ patrons. They more than made up for the void left by his dad. J.R. said:
“The good and the bad… I learned what not to do as much as I learned what to do. But they taught me how to love. How to tell stories. And they were always a group of me that I could go to and have them congratulate me and be proud of me, and I think every young boy needs that.”
J.R. started writing about the bar and its patrons while in school. He tried to fictionalize it, but he failed miserably. After several failures, Moehringer decided to write about the bar as a true story.
Moehringer interviewed the characters in the bar to ensure that he wrote as accurately as possible. “I wanted to nail down every detail that I could,” J.R. told C-SPAN. The biggest fans of J.R.’s book are, unsurprisingly, the bar’s patrons. He told NPR:
“They’re proud of this book. And that’s a great relief for me, because they feel as if their stories have been presented truthfully and so it validates their lives in a way.”
The Tender Bar isn’t a film about alcoholism
Don’t let the film’s name fool you: The Tender Bar isn’t about alcoholism. It does highlight the bad and good of alcohol, but it doesn’t focus on alcoholism.
In the film, J.R.’s father is the only one with a drinking problem: He disappears for years and returns with false promises about sobriety – but George Clooney doesn’t give him significant screen time.
“George Clooney didn’t hammer on it,” screenwriter William Monohan told The New York Times. “But the J.R. character does definitely have a point where he realizes he has to straighten up.”
Clooney followed Moehringer’s lead in declining to focus on alcohol’s negatives. J.R. told The New York Times that alcohol can be a complex topic to discuss:
“Alcohol can be wonderful, enriching, spirit enhancing, so it’s hard to think – unpleasant to think – that it can also be dangerous, and sometimes deadly. It doesn’t seem fair, this thing that makes us feel so good can also make us feel so bad. The paradox makes it hard to discuss.”
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