August 12, 2022

A Memoir Teacher’s Critique of the memoir-turned-movie: THE TENDER BAR

The Tender Bar: A Memoir is a book you should read if you haven’t. It’s the kind of book that stays with you for the many questions it surfaces about maleness in our culture, about identity and fatherlessness, and about the fierce bonds that often form between sons and their single mothers.

The Tender Bar, the movie, glossed over a lot of this and focused instead on one young man’s unlikely journey to Yale. Although in the book J.R.’s love interest is an interesting thread, impactful because the girlfriend Sydney (like the Sydney in the movie) is higher class, more cultivated, more sophisticated, in the movie George Clooney and team decided that the relationship with Sydney and J.R.’s friendship with his Yale roommate (who honestly was so barely there in the book that I don’t remember him) merited an inordinate amount of screen time. (Excuse this aside, but it cannot be lost on any viewer that Sydney and Wesley, J.R.’s love interest and best friend, respectively, are Black. Yale’s current student body, in 2022, is 5% Black. It’s important (critical even) that Hollywood be paying attention to the dearth of Black roles in Hollywood, but am I the only one who was bothered by the fact that this is not addressed in the script? I am thinking about Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, which I hope will someday become a movie. In it, he dates a white girl and it’s a BIG deal. What if Kiese’s main love interest in college, Nzola, were cast as a white girl? The fact that Sydney’s ridiculously rich fictive Black parents would not address the elephant in the room of J.R.’s race and their thoughts about Sydney bringing home a white boy in the 1980s is absurd, and it’s absurd because it’s not true to the book. Sydney in the book is white.)   

What I felt watching The Tender Bar was just sad—for a lost opportunity. The memoir is coming-of-age. What that means in memoir is that the book spans the growing-up years. The best parts of The Tender Bar film were J.R.’s young years, hands down. The boy J.R., played by Daniel Ranieri, is wonderful to watch. Ben Affleck does an amazing job as Uncle Charlie. But the gift of The Tender Bar: A Memoir is how Moehringer writes about how men—especially Charlie and his bar friends, but also his absent father—shaped his understanding of maleness, and how very atypical J.R. found himself to be in this surround. I read and taught the book in 2019 when my son was eight going on nine, and as a mother to a boy, what touched me in equal measure to the manhood narrative was the beauty and the nuance of J.R.’s relationship with his mother. The book considers what the experience is for a kid raised by a mother who doesn’t have a partner. J.R. is a sensitive kid, and throughout the book he’s aware of the way in which his very presence is a burden to his mom, maybe, he speculates, preventing her from having a boyfriend, from being able to fulfill her own dreams. That she puts her dreams onto him is addressed in the movie, but what we don’t see in the film is how J.R. resents this, how he flounders and fails and drinks himself into oblivion the whole time he’s at Yale specifically because Yale was not his dream, but his mother’s.

I imagine it’s hard to capture “what matters” in a film when you have a book like The Tender Bar and all its content to work with, but I wish the filmmakers had consulted with someone who has a stake in the genre of memoir. What makes The Tender Bar: A Memoir is its coming-of-age revelations. I wouldn’t call the movie a coming-of-age story. I would say its focus instead was on what happens when a disadvantaged kid who’s grown up in a bar goes to Yale and is out of his element. The thing about this storyline is that you could skip entire chunks of it and miss nothing, which I was tempted to do.

I would be remiss not to address this small thing that irked me as a publisher. As the movie begins to wind down, J.R.’s mom, in encouraging him to go out and be a writer, says to him: “Publishing is heading toward memoir.” Then Sydney says those same lines verbatim a few scenes later: “Publishing is heading toward memoir.” People don’t say this: Publishing is heading toward anything… So the fact of the repetition by two separate characters was jarring dialogue writing—and then there’s the fact that it’s a total fabrication. When J.R. graduated from Yale in 1987, very few memoirs had been published. It was not until the’90s when memoirs started to explode onto the scene with Prozac Nation (1994), The Color of Water (1995) The Liars’ Club (1995), Angela’s Ashes (1996). Of course some memoirs were published in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that publishing truly started “heading toward memoir.”

The book ends on this same exact line—again with J.R.’s character musing that publishing is heading toward memoir (at which point my head exploded), as if to suggest that he was driving off to his immediate future to dash off this memoir that would soon become a bestseller. Only that’s not at all what happened, because if you read the book you’ll know that the epilogue is set against the backdrop of 9/11, and you’ll know that he published this memoir in 2005, which is eighteen years after he graduated from Yale. In my experience, this is the appropriate distance a memoirist needs from their personal story to write the kind of book J.R. Moehringer wrote.

The Tender Bar: A Memoir is a beautiful experience. Since I taught the book alongside my memoir co-teacher Linda Joy Myers, I want to share that we are selling our four-week course, What Made The Tender Bar a Best-selling Memoir?

Don’t miss the book. If you catch the movie, little J.R. and Uncle Charlie make it worth the experience. If anyone is wondering why I didn’t mention The Voice (J.R.’s dad) in my critique, it’s because I found it to be another annoyance of the film due to the fact that the relationship with the dad was not well enough developed to merit the final blowout, and therefore leaves you with cognitive dissonance—in a way that the book does not.

Anyway, read the book. It’s a classic, and the movie can’t change that.

Speak Your Mind

*