“The Tender Bar,” the memoir written by J.R. Moehringer, is a great book. “The Tender Bar,” the movie directed by George Clooney, is only an OK movie. Something gets lost along the way, and that’s not surprising; Moehringer’s book, a dense retelling of a mostly fatherless childhood spent partly at a Long Island neighborhood bar, is enchanting for the poetry of its language and for the author’s constant resistance to easy sentimentality. Clooney’s movie, scripted by William Monahan, can’t quite manage that resistance — the book’s rough edges are smoothed away, and what remains is a fairly generic coming-of-age story, with a bit of “Cheers” mixed in.
Spanning from 1973, when young J.R. (played as a child by bright-eyed Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (a fine Lily Rabe) move back into her parents’ home, to the mid-’80s (with adult J.R. played, rather glibly, by Tye Sheridan), “The Tender Bar” is filled with familiar jukebox music and smoky light. At its center is Ben Affleck, as J.R.’s beloved Uncle Charlie, a literature-loving bartender who acts as a father figure to the boy. While Affleck’s fine (and unusually likable) in the role, he’s nothing like the far more interesting Uncle Charlie in the book, who’s lost all his hair from alopecia and who speaks in “a crazy, jazzy fusion of SAT words and gangster slang that made him sound like a cross between an Oxford don and a Mafia don.” The movie isn’t terrible, but too often it feels Hollywood-bland; a missed opportunity, served neat.