The Tender Bar: a cheers to all the Uncle Charlies

The Tender Bar: Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) giving life advice to his nephew JR (Tye Sheridan). Below, JR's mum (Lily Raby) gives loving advice.

The Tender Bar: Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) giving life advice to his nephew JR (Tye Sheridan). Below, JR's mum (Lily Raby) gives loving advice.

The Tender Bar

Amazon Prime Video

The witty drinker with unrealised intellectual potential is not the most original character in cinema.

It's not even a new idea for Ben Affleck. Apart from co-writing Good Will Hunting and winning an Oscar for it in 1997, he played another acerbic slacker, in that same year, in Kevin Smith's underrated film Chasing Amy.

This year, in The Tender Bar, directed by George Clooney, it's almost as though both of those earlier characters are all grown up. The cigarettes, the alcohol and the highbrow book collection are all still there. But this time it's Affleck, as Uncle Charlie, who's giving the life advice. Peeping over the other side of the counter in a blue collar Long Island bar called The Dickens, the recipient of this boozy wisdom is his much younger, wide-eyed nephew JR (Daniel Ranieri as the young JR, Tye Sheridan as the adult JR).

The difference this time, of course, is that Charlie and JR aren't cinematic creations at all. Years before winning a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, JR Moehringer really was a drinker with an unexplored potential.

He really did have an Uncle Charlie who read Victorian literature, drank beers and went bowling. Were it not for his creative talents, JR might even have remained undiscovered, just like Will Hunting nearly did.

Instead, much to the relief of his struggling single mother (played by Lily Rabe) and flatulent grandfather (an evergreen, if not now rather mossy, Christopher Lloyd), JR goes to Yale and works at the New York Times. The prestige associated with both of those institutions leaves the adult JR (Tye Sheridan) suffering from a chronic case of Imposter Syndrome.

JR's condition is made worse when he falls helplessly for Sidney (Briana Middleton) and, in a way that Clooney conveys with impressive subtlety, never really finds his feet again.

Perpetuating the insecurities felt by JR, as both a man and a writer, is the absence of his father (Max Martini). Known to him from his earliest memories as "the voice" (because he's a radio personality), JR has only the most occasional encounter with this ominous, mysterious presence.

Later in the film, when JR finally sees his Dad in all of his violent and alcoholic darkness, the son confronts the father with an unexpected courage.

In another of the film's heartbreaking moments, the junior steels himself to become something more than his senior - the broken man that abandoned him. As a policeman drives him away from the scene, his words reverberate with wisdom. Of all those that we walk through life with, it's only those in our family that are our compulsory companions.

And for all of it's smooth backing tracks and seductive, cosy bar room atmospheres, The Tender Bar is ultimately about that singular truth. Even when it causes us the deepest of discomforts, your family never really goes away.

For most of us, like it is for JR, this is a regular blessing and a rarer curse.

The blessings are easy to overlook. The curses not so much.

From behind the smoke of a thousand cigarettes, his bar and the dashboard of his rusty car (a Cadillac at that), Uncle Charlie was the blessing that never lessened.

Fortunately for all, when he eventually develops the strength to do so, with all the wit and the literature Charlie has offered him, it is someone else who does the abandoning.

Review by Michael Byrne

This story Cheers to all the Uncle Charlies first appeared on The Canberra Times.