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‘The Tender Bar’: Ben Affleck scores again as a barkeep dispensing wisdom with the whiskey

The stakes are low but the quality is high in director George Clooney’s comforting 1970s slice of life.

Saloon owner Charlie (Ben Affleck, left) acts as a father figure for J.R. (Tye Sheridan) in “The Tender Bar.”
Saloon owner Charlie (Ben Affleck, left) acts as a father figure for J.R. (Tye Sheridan) in “The Tender Bar.”
Amazon Studios

Without ever seeking out any gossip about Ben Affleck’s personal life I feel exhausted by all the judgmental fuss and holler about Ben Affleck’s personal life because it’s just OUT THERE everywhere, but here’s what matters to me when it comes to Ben Affleck:

He’s a skilled filmmaker who pulled off an astonishing hat trick with his first three films — “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and “Argo” — and he’s an underrated actor with truly versatile chops, as evidenced by his two brilliant supporting turns this year, starting with his hilariously out-there work as the devilish Pierre d’Alencon in Ridley Scott’s underappreciated “The Last Duel,” and now with his nomination-worthy, effortlessly scene-stealing performance as a classic 1970s uncle in George Clooney’s “The Tender Bar.”

That’s what matters to me.

Playing a fictionalized version of a real-life character from J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir, Affleck delivers some of the finest work of his career as a self-taught philosopher who presides over a Long Island tavern that’s like a rough-hewn “Cheers,” dispensing wisdom and whiskey while sucking on cigarettes and looking after his 9-year-old nephew J.R. (Daniel Ranieri), whose absentee dad is literally just a voice on the radio. “The Tender Bar” is unabashedly sentimental — it’s one of those movies about writers told from the point of view of the writer that romanticizes everything about writing — but Clooney’s sure-handed direction and pitch-perfect attention to the 1970s and 1980s period-piece material, combined with the warm and relatable performances, make for classic comfort-movie formula. Nothing of monumental consequence ever really happens to these characters — other than life itself.

Bathed in shag-rug sepia tones and brimming with soundtrack selections such as Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” and Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” to help set the mood, “The Tender Bar” kicks off in 1973, as J.R. and his financially strapped mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe) are once again moving back into Dorothy’s spacious but cluttered childhood home in working-class Manhasset on the North Shore of Long Island, where Dorothy’s mother (the wonderful Sondra James in her final role) welcomes them with open arms and Dorothy’s crabby father (Christopher Lloyd, priceless as always) mutters about how the house always seems to be overflowing with family. Dorothy’s brother, Charlie (Affleck), also seems to have taken up permanent residence, mostly on the couch, and other cousins and relatives swing in and out at all hours. Seems like everybody is just scraping by financially, but man is there a lot of love in that house. Loud love, but love nonetheless.

Uncle Charlie quickly figures out the sensitive and inquisitive J.R. is no good at sports, so he encourages J.R. to read — and to read and to read, as Charlie has an extensive collection of books stashed in his room and on the shelves behind his bar, which is called, appropriately enough, Dickens. (The tavern reminded me of Chicago joints such as Old Town Ale House and Red Lion Pub.) He also advises J.R. on the male sciences, as he calls them, which include such lessons as never hit a woman, even if she stabs you; takes J.R. bowling with his buddies and his girlfriend of the moment; sends J.R. to the corner store to buy a pack of smokes, and encourages J.R. to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. He’s basically the uncle everybody wants.

When teenage J.R. (now played by Tye Sheridan) realizes his dream of getting a scholarship to Yale, “The Tender Bar” shifts tones and becomes a kind of “Good Will Hunting” episodic adventure (Ben Affleck callback!), as J.R. falls for a sophisticated and alluring classmate named Sidney (Briana Middleton), who comes from an upper-class background and toys with J.R.’s emotions for years. (There’s a terrific bit of edgy comedy when J.R. visits Sidney and her parents at their posh home in Waterford, Connecticut, and things do NOT go well.) We eventually also meet J.R.’s deadbeat father, aka “The Voice” (Max Martini in a scene-stealing performance), a veteran disc jockey straight out of Harry Chapin’s bittersweet radio announcer dirge “W.O.L.D.” (the great good morning voice, who’s heard but never seen…) The only thing J.R.’s dad is good for is reminding J.R. how lucky he’s been to have Uncle Charlie in his life all these years, dispensing wisdom and looking out for him and believing in him no matter what.

That’s a damn good uncle right there.