Ben Affleck, middle age, is Ben Affleck. Affleck wrote films, directed movies and was Batman. He’s been up, he’s been down. He’s been trim and he’s been paunchy. He’s been around seemingly forever, or at least a quarter-century: His role as high-school bully O’Bannion in Richard Linklater’s 1993 Get dazed and confused wasn’t his first, but it was the first time most people took notice of him.
Affleck is only in a supporting role. The Tender Bar directed by George Clooney and adapted from J. R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir about growing up with an absentee father. He makes it. In 1973, J.R., an 11-year old boy, is moving back with his mom (Lily Rabe), to their family home in Manhasset. The patriarch Christopher Lloyd (surly) appears to be reluctant to have anything to do with them. J.R.’s mom has run out of money; his father, a DJ with a husky purr (Max Martini), skipped out on them long ago, and is clearly a jerk, or worse.
But J.R. likes his grandpa’s house, largely because it’s teeming with cousins and other relatives. (His mother, who’s less happy about backtracking in her life, asks him how he likes it, to which he replies, “It’s people. I like to have people.”) But what he loves best is being around his Uncle Charlie (Affleck), a bartender who never went to college, even though he’s read a ton of books. Charlie smokes at the dinner table—this is the ’70s, after all—and swigs Pabst Blue Ribbon from a bottle, though he’s not a heavy drinker. He’s good at sports, even if sports haven’t been good to him. And he imparts much useful life advice, making a list of all the things J.R. must do to be a man (learn to jump-start a car and change a tire, take care of his mother), and all the things he must never do: “Never hit a woman,” Charlie tells him solemnly, “even if she stabs you with scissors.”
Charlie’s joint is known as the Dickens. When J.R. questions Charlie about whether the books behind the bar can be used for reading, Charlie hands him one. J.R. admits to being a reader, but Charlie encourages him even further by pointing out a closet within the family home whose sliding doors do not conceal clothing, but instead books stacked on groaning shelves. J.R. soon declares that he would like to be a writer. A little later—the teenage J.R. is played by Tye Sheridan—he applies, with trepidation, to Yale. He’s a working-class kid who can’t afford that kind of education, but because he’s so smart, he gets in and also qualifies for aid. Yet once he’s there, he faces another type of not-belonging, when he falls for Sidney (Briana Middleton), a girl from Waterford, Conn., with frosty parents (played by Mark Boyett and Quincy Tyler Bernstine) who make it clear he’s not good enough for their daughter, though she seems to feel that way too.
Class insecurities are real, as anyone who’s suffered them knows. But even if Tender Bar is generally a sweet, affectionate film, it deflates whenever J.R. isn’t in Manhasset—because that means there’s no Ben Affleck. Clooney is a thoughtful, sophisticated filmmaker, yet there’s never anything pretentious about his movies; they always come off as having been made by a real person. However, Tender Bar—its script is by William Monahan—suffers a bit from writer-worship. (Writers’ stories about their lifelong yearning to be writers are generally interesting only to themselves.) And while it’s wonderful that J.R. has grown up with people who have encouraged him, the semi-disreputable braininess of his uncle seems to have shaped him the most.
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Affleck seems to have spent his entire life reading, working at a bar, and smoking. Affleck is perfect here, as a relaxed, rumpled, straight-talking guy who’s so comfortable in his own skin that he has extra love and confidence to spread to those around him. He looks exactly like men in his 1970s stripey sweaters, with his retro side parts. It’s almost as if Affleck has gone back to time to study them, looking for the details. The story doesn’t give Charlie a hidden dark side or a tragic arc. It simply allows him to saunter through the film, doling out advice, tooling around in his groovy teal Cadillac convertible, reassuring his somewhat insecure nephew that the kid has “it.” Affleck is a perennial whipping boy on social media, for minor infractions like looking depressed or appearing as if he’s put on a few pounds, or for failing to meet community moral standards—whatever those are—for being a good husband or boyfriend or person. But whether his detractors like it or not, he’s always been a pretty good actor, and he’s only getting better. Affleck will carry on, through a period of life that isn’t easy for anyone, regardless of gender. The meme is stronger than the man.