We’re in the age of the uncle movie, and their influential characters run the gamut of stereotypes. We’ve had the cool, gay uncle in “Uncle Frank” and the big-hearted, sensitive uncle in “C’mon C’mon.” “The Tender Bar” has the straight-shooting, honest uncle whose true self gets poisoned by nostalgia. You know this one; he’s the tough guy who cusses in front of you when you’re a kid, promises to always tell you the truth, and gives you romantic advice that will prove useless. He can even get the everlasting gobstopper crap beaten out of him, and your hazy affection for his toughness won’t waver. You think back on him with fondness, as he was so much larger than life in your youth, and that affection buffs off the edges you unwillingly recall as an adult.
This kind of uncle is embodied here by Ben Affleck, whose presence made me incorrectly assume this movie took place in Boston. Uncle Ben, or rather, Uncle Charlie as Affleck’s character is christened, runs a bar on Long Island called The Dickens Bar. Unlike Joseph Cotten’s more famous namesake from “Shadow of a Doubt,” Uncle Charlie doesn’t murder people and terrorize his sister’s kid; the star rating would be higher if he did. Instead, he instructs his young nephew JR in the fine art of being a man. These lessons are necessary because, you guessed it, JR’s got daddy issues exacerbated by his missing Papa, a radio DJ nicknamed “The Voice” (Max Martini). JR listens to The Voice whenever he can, while he and his mother (Lily Rabe) wonder where he is. Considering radio stations have call letters and physical locations in 1973, it shouldn’t be too hard to find this deadbeat. Whenever anyone hears The Voice on the radio, they immediately knock over or destroy the radio. These folks have lots of radios to pummel.
No matter. The Voice shows up every so often to predictably disappoint the young JR, who is played in an excellent debut by Daniel Ranieri, and to infuriate the older JR, who is played by Tye Sheridan with just as much disinterest as his director puts into shooting him. One of many running jokes that never works (but would inspire a great drinking game to pass your time) is the response whenever JR introduces himself. “What does the JR stand for?” they ask. There’s no answer. Another unsuccessful running joke is the reason why Uncle Charlie gets angry whenever The Voice shows up—apparently he owes Charlie 30 dollars. My mind drifted to the pissed off paperboy from “Better Off Dead,” who constantly screamed “I want my two dollars!!” whenever he saw John Cusack. At least he doesn’t get beaten up for demanding his dough. Uncle Charlie, on the other hand, is not so lucky.