‘Tender Bar’: A Drinking Story That Kisses Alcoholism


there is a moment near the end JR Moehringer’s 2005 memoir “The Tender Bar” when the author noticed that the sewer was swirling around him. Steve, the owner of his favorite bar, died from an alcoholic overstretching, falling, beating his head, and falling into a coma. Fresh out of Yale, young Moehringer turns to his most seductive friend seeking solace: booze.

“I no longer pretend to drink to connect with men, relieve everyday anxiety, or participate in male rituals,” Moehringer writes. “I drank to get drunk. I drank because I couldn’t figure out what else to do. To achieve oblivion, I finally drank like Steve did.”

“Tender Bar” adapted as An Amazon Prime movie directed by George ClooneyIt’s definitely not about alcoholism. It’s about community and family and the void left by a (alcoholic) father who wasn’t there. But Moehringer’s words would make a standard drunken speech at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, many of which I attended. “Oblivion” is a popular word out there and a popular destination among alcoholics. That’s one of the cleverest things about Moehringer’s memoirs: He deftly captures the moment when the party is over, it’s no longer fun, and it’s time to sink or swim. (Moehringer stopped drinking when he was 25.)

This moment is never in the movie, however, mostly because JR, played by Tye Sheridan, drinks fruitlessly, as does everyone else at the Long Island shelter, where his bartender uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) spits out words of wisdom with his dry mouth. Martini. The closest the movie comes to accepting alcoholism is when JR’s not-so-good father (Max Martini) comes into the picture. A classic dead dad disappears for years, showing up to proclaim his sobriety, but reveals that he can actually drink cocktails occasionally because he’s not really an alcoholic. Then he beats his girlfriend. He was identified as the alcoholic and also the villain of the movie.

“Tender Bar” screenwriter William Monahan said over the phone, “He’s someone who has greatly increased his sobriety, and it’s like, ‘I decided to give myself a cocktail.’ “Then this cocktail leads to domestic violence, like 10 million.”

But aside from JR’s father, no one in the movie seems to have a drinking problem despite spending their free time in a bar.

“George Clooney didn’t hit it with a hammer,” Monahan said. “But there is one point that the JR character definitely understands he needs to fix.”

Yes and no. In the movie, JR comes to Charlie worried that he will end up like his father. Charlie’s advice: Cut down on drinking. And that’s it. We don’t see JR slam cocktails at Penn Station and we take a few Budweiser tall boys to go to the bar like he does in the book. Instead, his uncle tells him to cool off a bit. Does he heed this advice? We can never really learn.

Moehringer, who later wrote novels (“Sutton”) and other books (“On” with Andre Agassi), sees drinking as an inherently difficult subject to portray in film.

“It is very tightly woven into the social fabric and is a very central part of many rites and rituals, holidays and special occasions,” he told me via email. “Alcohol can be wonderful, enriching, mood-enhancing, so it’s hard to think of it as dangerous and sometimes deadly – it’s not nice to think about – it doesn’t seem fair, what makes us feel so good can also make us feel so bad. The paradox makes it hard to argue.”

Yet this paradox provided the backbone of the film enough to make the cinema of alcoholism its genre. Most of these films meaningfully and thoughtfully talk about the core characteristics of illness, from self-loathing to basic dishonesty to greedy desire.

Some of these movies are fairly new. For example, the 2012 movie “Flight,” in which Denzel Washington plays an alcoholic pilot who makes a daring landing while under the influence, is about how easily alcoholics lie to themselves and others. Others belong to classic Hollywood. “Lost Weekend” (1945) tells the gruesome tale of a desperate drunk who fights futilely with the defining alcoholism, all-consuming drinking obsession. These are bold films that quickly reduce the cost of alcoholism.

Some of these themes emerge in Moehringer’s book, which takes care to highlight the good, bad, and ugly aspects of life on a bar stool, even if it’s not specifically about alcoholism. But the movie doesn’t even bother to distinguish one of Moehringer’s barflies from the other. They are mostly faces in the crowd, even if they say a word here and there. The book makes it clear that Moehringer loves these guys. They are almost absent from the screen.

This is unfortunate. The people in a bar give the place character even though you want to turn it down, just like the normal person in the book who choked JR to half death because he was tired of hearing her speak. Tender bars have idiots who have to tell you all the cool things they plan to do, and drunks who enjoy telling you how drunk you are. Bars have personalities. These personalities don’t have to be tragic, but sometimes, in Steve’s case, they are.

“The Tender Bar” is a warm, fuzzy little movie with the first sip of a light beer. But for a movie with the word “bar” in its title, it contains remarkably little information about where alcohol is consumed and what it does.

It is quite sensitive. But it might need some firmness.



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