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William Monahan talks adapting the beloved 'The Tender Bar'

January 7, 2022
4 min read time

In his latest directorial endeavor, George Clooney takes on The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer's beloved memoir of the same name. The book pays tribute to Moehringer's Uncle Charlie (played here by a pitch-perfect Ben Affleck), and screenwriter William Monahan does the same with the film. 

One can’t help but wonder if the movie should’ve been Affleck’s altogether; Uncle Charlie is one of the more complex characters in the script, and Affleck wholeheartedly steals scenes as a gregarious, advice-giving bartender with one incredible Cadillac. He cites excellent pearly wisdoms as easily as he mixes drinks at his bar, which is affectionately named Dickens. His wisdom flows with the bar booze and J.R. worships him from a young age as Charlie espouses what he calls “male science”: don’t drink your money, and if you can be independent, someone will be interested in you. 

The film instead is the story of J.R. and his coming-of-age under the care of a single mother, and a surrogate father in both his Uncle Charlie and his grandfather (Christopher Lloyd). Meanwhile, J.R.’s father is a distant radio voice that swoops into his life only when it's convenient for him. 

Monahan had no easy task adapting an award-winning, much beloved novel but it’s clear he approached the task with reverence: “It was amazing the studio came to me and asked me to do it. They had the rights to The Tender Bar, and after I’d done it and handed it in, George Clooney had wanted to do it since the book came out in 2005. There were various attempts to make it, and it landed at Amazon and then came to me. They went to George and Grant [Heslov] and said there’s finally a script of The Tender Bar ... it was very fortunate the rights came available and there was a director and producer ready to go ahead with it.”

Monahan continues with how he approaches adaptations: “It depends on the book. Sometimes they go into film easily. If you take a look at Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange coming from the Anthony Burgess novel, they shot the novel. It’s a very short novel, just 21 chapters. ... Kubrick got script credit for Clockwork when he really just shot the book ... with this adaptation we were going from 500 pages to a 115-page script. I’m not gonna fit it all in, but I have to get the essence. I hope I succeeded as it’s a very popular book, and a favorite book of a lot of people, which I learned after I took the job. ... When I learned that, I thought, 'Oh, no. I hope I don’t screw this up.'”

Monahan did not write the role of Charlie for Affleck specifically, even though it seems tailor-made for him. Instead, he stresses, everyone at the helm of the project was more than ready to steer the ship.

“These guys are professionals and they know what they are doing; they had a shooting script and shot it ... they made it their own, and I got to see the beautiful surprises when I saw it for the first time.”

Of course, the film is not just Charlie’s story. Protagonist Charlie’s life comes together through the eyes of a kid (Daniel Ranieri as young J.R.) and a young adult still finding his way (Tye Sheridan as grown J.R.). Monahan uses some lovely devices to converge their narrative and even gives a chance for the two to meet. 

Monahan mused on how he pulled it off: “You have to have at least three J.R.s: the child, the 12-year-old to teenage J.R., and the young man. That creates problems of too much dissonance with actors playing different characters. From a movie point of view, you don’t need the adolescent doing adolescent things. In the memoir, the mother, who is a terrific character, makes an attempt to self-actualize and realize her life by going to Arizona and it doesn’t turn out well. It ends with the return to the house and J.R.’s return, but we’ve already been there when they go home the first time with the mattress. So we fuse two characters, the young boy and the young man.”

And what is a coming-of-age story without a monumental love story thrown in to help create an uneasy path to hopeful possible success? Enter Briana Middleton as Sidney. J.R. is smitten from her first frame onscreen, and who wouldn’t be as Middleton’s screen presence is glowing. Monahan says J.R.’s journey is indeed influenced by classic coming-of-age stories that have come before: “J.R. is inevitably having an F. Scott Fitzgerald experience. There’s the unattainable upper-class woman, and the setting of Long Island.”

To find out if J.R. gets the girl, one will have to watch the movie. Either way, J.R. is often living in the shadow of his absent father, but Monahan stresses in real life J.R. went onto become a hugely successful, best-selling author: “I do think that came out of circumstances that kicked his ass, but he did in a fantastic way. That’s what’s the most appealing thing about the book. It’s not the usual young author using his tough background to advance himself. It’s a burst of absolute honesty about a young kid who was humble and loved his family and they love him. It’s incredibly refreshing if you look at what’s going on there.” 

Monahan continues that indeed, in a way J.R. had to find a means to overcome his father: “He doesn’t have to kill his father to extinguish him. What’s important is to put that man behind him. The father has to not matter to him anymore.” Monahan and Clooney deal with J.R.’s relationship with his father in a powerful and surprising way in the third act. One can watch J.R. actively take his future into his own hands when he does finally put his father  and the idea of him — behind him.

The Tender Bar ultimately is not a supremely original story, but it does contain enough rites of passage to feel like a universal one. That, and J.R.’s journey is full of all-American charm, so mix up your favorite cocktail and enjoy the warm tingles only a drink from Dickens could provide. 

The Tender Bar is now playing in theaters.

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