‘The Tender Bar’: A tale of drinking that ducks alcoholism
By Chris Vognar
There’s a moment near the end of J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir, “The Tender Bar,” when the author realizes he’s circling the drain. The owner of his favorite bar, Steve, has died an alcoholic’s death, overserving himself, falling, hitting his head and lapsing into a coma. Seeking solace, the young Moehringer, fresh out of Yale University, turns to his most seductive companion: booze.
“I no longer made any pretense of drinking to bond with the men, or to blunt the cares of the day, or to participate in male rituals,” Moehringer writes. “I drank to get drunk. I drank because I couldn’t think what else to do. I drank the way Steve drank at the end, to achieve oblivion.”
“The Tender Bar,” which has been adapted as an Amazon Prime movie, directed by George Clooney, isn’t strictly about alcoholism. It’s about community, family and the void left by an absent (alcoholic) father. But Moehringer’s words would make for a standard drunkalogue at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, of which I’ve attended many. “Oblivion” is a popular word there, and a popular destination among alcoholics. This is one of the smartest things about Moehringer’s memoir: It deftly captures that moment when the party comes to an end, when it’s just not fun anymore and it’s time to sink or swim. (Moehringer quit drinking when he was 25.)
But that moment never comes in the movie, mostly because J.R., played by Tye Sheridan, drinks without consequences, as does everyone else at the New York watering hole where his bartender uncle, Charlie (Ben Affleck), dispenses words of wisdom with his dry martinis. The closest the movie comes to acknowledging alcoholism is when J.R.’s ne’er-do-well father (Max Martini) enters the picture. A classic deadbeat dad, he disappears for years at a time, shows up to announce his sobriety, but explains that he can actually have the occasional cocktail because he’s not really an alcoholic. Then he beats up his girlfriend. He’s the movie’s designated alcoholic and also its villain.
“He’s somebody who’s making a big deal of his sobriety, and it’s like, ‘I’ve decided I can allow myself a cocktail,’” “Tender Bar” screenwriter William Monahan said by phone. “Then that cocktail is like 10 million of them, resulting in domestic violence.”
Aside from J.R.’s dad, however, no one in the movie seems to have a drinking problem, despite spending all of their free time at a bar.
“George Clooney didn’t hammer on it,” Monahan said. “But the J.R. character does definitely have a point where he realizes he’s got to straighten up.”
Well, yes and no. In the movie, J.R. comes to Charlie concerned that he’ll end up like his old man. Charlie’s advice: Cut back on the drinking. And that’s that. We don’t see J.R. slam cocktails at Penn Station and pick up a few Budweiser tallboys for the ride to the bar, as he does in the book. Instead, his uncle tells him to cool it a little. Does he heed this advice? We never really find out.
Moehringer, who has gone on to write novels (“Sutton”) and other books (“Open,” with Andre Agassi), sees drinking as an inherently difficult subject to depict in film.
“It’s woven so tightly into the social fabric, and it’s such a central part of many rites and rituals, holidays and special occasions,” he told me via email. “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.”
Yet that paradox has also provided the backbone for enough movies to make the cinema of alcoholism its own genre. Many of these films speak eloquently and thoughtfully to essential traits of the disease, from self-loathing to fundamental dishonesty to ravenous craving.
Some of these movies are quite recent. For instance, “Flight,” the 2012 film starring Denzel Washington as an alcoholic pilot who pulls off a daredevil landing while under the influence, is about the ease with which alcoholics lie to themselves and everyone else. Others belong to classic Hollywood. “The Lost Weekend” (1945) tells the terrifying story of a hopeless drunk futilely fighting the all-consuming obsession with drinking that defines alcoholism. These are brave films that cut to the quick of alcoholism’s cost.
Some of these themes emerge in Moehringer’s book, which takes care to spotlight the good, the bad and the ugly parts of life on a bar stool, even if it isn’t specifically about alcoholism. But the movie doesn’t even bother to separate one of Moehringer’s barflies from another. They are, for the most part, mere faces in the crowd, even when they speak a line here and there. The book makes clear that Moehringer loved these guys. On the screen they barely even exist.
This is unfortunate. The people in a bar give the place character, even when they make you want to turn away, like the regular in the book who chokes J.R. half to death just because he’s sick of hearing him talk. Tender bars have blowhards who need to tell you about all the cool stuff they plan to do, and drunks who delight in telling you how drunk you are. Bars have personalities. Those personalities don’t have to be tragic, but sometimes, say in Steve’s case, they are.
“The Tender Bar” is a warm, fuzzy little movie, a first sip of a light beer. But for a film with the word “bar” in its title, it contains remarkably little insight about alcohol, where it’s consumed and what it does.
It is quite tender. But it could use a little toughness.