The Tender Bar

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a boy with a soda at his parents' bar in The Tender Bar movie

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Paul Asay

Movie Review

The initials stood for “Junior.” But J.R. Moehringer never likes saying what Junior itself stands for or who he was named after. Truth is, he barely knew himself.

J.R.’s dad ran out on him before the boy was even born. His mom, Dorothy, cut the guy out of every family picture. He never came to visit, even though he worked in New York and they lived in Long Island. He never called. The only contact J.R. had with him was over the radio—listening to the D.J.’s rich, graveled baritone that earned him the moniker “The Voice.”

Even then, the contact would be brief. Sometimes when The Voice started speaking, the radio would suddenly flick off or unplug or, occasionally, go flying.

J.R.’s dad was clearly not a big part of the kid’s life, nor was he ever likely going to be. But J.R. made due with the family he had.

Dorothy was great for the boy—a conscientious mother who loved him as well as she could and encouraged him to work hard and to keep his nose clean. She dreamed he might go to an Ivy League school one day—Harvard or Yale or bust, she thought—and become a lawyer. Be the first Moehringer to make something of himself and get out of Grandpa’s house for good.

Oh yes, Grandpa—the crotchety old man who owned the house that every Moehringer slinked back to from time to time. Not that he liked having a house full of relatives. He’d make them all feel distinctly unwelcome. But the door was still open—even if it came with a scowl.

But Uncle Charlie, he was the best. He tended a bar called Dickens, and stacks of Charles’ Dickens books shared shelf space with the tequila and whiskey. J.R. spent much of his childhood in that bar—parked on a bar stool as he read, or did his homework, or played word games with the regulars who came in for a beer or eight. There, Uncle Charlie would give him advice on what it meant to be a man, wisdom spliced between f-words.

The Voice might’ve given J.R. his name. But Uncle Charlie? He gave J.R. a father of sorts—or, at least, a father facsimile.

And J.R. knows he could do a lot worse.

Positive Elements

Listen, no one in the Moehringer family is going to get high marks at finishing school. But love can be found in homes filled with unwashed dishes and blue language, too. And the Moehringers, for all their protestations to the contrary, love each other a great deal.

We’ve already met and talked about a few characters and their positive points. Dorothy and Uncle Charlie clearly love J.R., and they give him as much of themselves as they can. When J.R. shows a love of reading, Charlie introduces him to a closet stuffed with books, and he tells the kid to read all of them: If he does, he might be worth talking to. When J.R. starts acting out at school, Charlie’s the guy who shows up to talk with the school psychologist, calling him out on some of the shrink’s ulterior motives. When Charlie’s girlfriend asks J.R. a touchy question, Charlie practically breaks up with her on the spot: His loyalty’s with his nephew, always. Charlie even supports the kid financially when he becomes a young man, and he gives him an unexpected gift when J.R.’s ready to go out on his own.

But Grandpa helps at times, too. When J.R.’s teacher throws a father-child breakfast for her students, Grandpa volunteers to go. “Don’t tell anybody I’m a good grandfather,” he whispers to J.R. “Everyone will want one.”

And we should also offer a bit of praise to J.R., as well. His upbringing wasn’t easy. For many people, such fractious father issues might’ve crippled them permanently (as a few armchair psychologists suggest). But J.R. overcame his relational and environmental challenges, worked hard, and leaned into his talents and ambition, becoming a man whom his family could be proud of.

Spiritual Elements

On a handful of train trips, J.R. finds himself talking with a kindly priest. He serves as mainly a friendly face, but the man of God does sometimes talk about godly things. He mentions that it’s his greatest ambition to “see the face of Father God,” but he mourns the state of his parish—how empty it is these days. He invites J.R. to make a confession, too, though J.R. declines.

The Moehringers seem to be nominally Christian, though you’d not necessarily know it by how they talk or act. A picture of Jesus hangs near the family dining room.

Sexual Content

In college, J.R. falls for a girl named Sidney, and the two waste little time getting to know each other in the biblical sense.

The most explicit encounter they have happens in Sidney’s family home. They remove bits of clothes as they head toward Sidney’s room. Once there, we see Sidney from the back, her bare back exposed in a sexual encounter. (We see both from the side as well, though nothing explicit is shown.) We hear them make sexually charged noises, too—which Sidney’s father hears from the bedroom below. (He simply sighs and turns off his reading light.)

Sidney and J.R. sleep together elsewhere, too (though we only see the couple afterward, as J.R. lies in bed and Sidney puts on her makeup). She asks him whether he’s had sex in various locales (using a more obscene word for “had sex”), and he repeats one such query with Sidney’s parents at the breakfast table—asking if they’ve ever done it in a Volvo.

We hear some crude conversation and barroom banter about sex, as well as some rough terminology involving various body parts.

J.R.’s school psychologist brands J.R. of having identity issues because he doesn’t know who his father is (compounded by being named after him). Charlie realizes that the diagnosis might actually be a ploy to get closer to J.R.’s mother.

Violent Content

We do eventually meet J.R.’s father, and we discover he’s an incredibly violent man. He punches Uncle Charlie in the face and knocks him to the ground, kicking him repeatedly before the camera leaves the scene.

Later, when “The Voice” is living down south and J.R. goes down to visit, his father gets drunk and starts hitting his girlfriend. (It’s apparently a common scene. The little girl who lives with the couple—we don’t know whether she’s their child or not—scurries out of the room as soon as she hears the guy come in and start talking.) J.R. stands up for the woman and soon calls the police. Even when an adult J.R. meets his father for lunch, the older man almost immediately turns confrontational—asking J.R. if he means to hit him for being such a terrible father; the older man then invites his son to take the first punch.

In contrast, Uncle Charlie tells J.R. never, ever to rough up a woman—“not even if she stabs you with scissors,” which seems suggestively specific. Some of Charlie’s friends (and regular customers) have checkered histories, and one tells a violent prison story or two.

Crude or Profane Language

About 70 f-words and another 20 s-words. We also hear plenty of other foul words, including “a–,” “b–tard,” “pr–k,” “d–k” and “p-ssy.” God’s name is misused five times, twice with the word “d—n,” And Jesus’ name is abused a dozen times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

As you might expect, alcohol is everywhere in The Tender Bar, but it influences the story in different ways—being both a source of homey comeraderie and a wellspring of horror.

J.R. pretty much grows up in a bar, and we see the inside of that bar plenty. People drink there (obviously), buy each other rounds and occasionally pass out on the furniture. When J.R. comes of age, Charlie tells him to order a drink—cautioning J.R. that whatever drink he picks will be his drink from then on. Every time he walks into that bar, that’s exactly what Charlie will pour for him. (J.R. and his college friends ultimately have martinis.) Charlie remembers the last time J.R.’s father came into the bar and ordered a drink, too. What he ordered was telling, Charlie believes: When you order a “well Scotch neat,” you’re done. You’ve given up.

When J.R. is in college, The Voice tells him over the phone that he’s stopped drinking and he’s doing his best to turn his life around. He has lots of apologies to make, he realizes, and J.R. “made the list.” But when J.R. visits his father years later, we learn he’s again relapsed. “I allow myself a cocktail from time to time,” he says, ordering a well double Scotch neat, and insisting that J.R. have the same. When J.R. doesn’t drink, his father gulps it down as they leave the restaurant. He quickly drinks even more at home.

When J.R. seems to be letting his own drinking get out of hand, Charlie tells him so—gently advising him to ease off. Charlie and his pals drink beer at a bowling alley. Several characters smoke.

Other Negative Elements

Grandpa passes gas several times in one scene, which exasperates Dorothy. Equally exasperating: The fact that he keeps denying that he’s doing it.

As mentioned, Grandpa’s pretty crabby about all his kids and grandkids showing up when times get tough. It’s at least partly an act—but a convincing one.

Charlie teaches J.R. how to play five-card stud when he’s just a kid. The Voice is really a terrible father, and we see a few examples of that.

Conclusion

Few of us had perfect childhoods. We can point to plenty of uncomfortable moments, plenty of mistakes that our parents or grandparents or other relatives made. And for some, those memories can be pretty scarring. But for others of us, we look back and remember the difficulties with an odd fondness. We might even say that we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The Tender Bar is based on J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir of the same name, unspooling his troubled childhood and praising those who made it not just bearable, but (for him) beautiful.

And we can indeed find a bit of beauty in the film. Uncle Charlie (played by Ben Affleck) is a loving father figure in spite of his grumbling and swearing. Grandpa’s home, filled (as J.R. tells us) with laughter and tears and non-stop drama, becomes truly a home to the boy—a place that he loved to live, just as much as his mother hated it.

But while J.R. could forgive and even embrace all those quirks and imperfections, we at Plugged In must cast a more judicious eye.

The Tender Bar is messy. It’s fractured. It’s littered with sexual content, positively soaked in booze and, most of all, it’s unremittingly profane. Yes, the movie says some nice things about family. But when each nice thing is wedged between a half-dozen obscenities, it makes those messages a hard sell. And perhaps this bar—no matter how tender—is one you might want to think twice about before sidling up to it.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.