Polish Bar explores the seamy side of the city, focused on two people whose lives erode as a result of poor decision-making skills. The film boasts terrific acting, skillful handling of difficult characters, and gritty, neo-realistic style. All of those qualities make it eminently watchable despite the occasional creative misstep (such as the unnecessary, heavy-handed presence of an Orthodox Jew). It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like harrowing depictions of pathological fuck-ups, Polish Bar is the film for you.
Reuben Horowitz (Vincent Piazza) claims to want one thing out of life: to succeed as an underground DJ in Chicago’s club scene. He has a long way to go, however. He spends his days working at a jewelry shop run by his uncle, Sol (Judd Hirsch), and his nights DJ’ing at a strip club. Oh yeah, he’s also a small-time coke dealer, working with best friend Tommy (James Badge Dale) and stripper Ebony (Golden Brooks). Ebony has to take care of her 16-year-old brother (Maestro Harrell—that’s right, Randy Wagstaff from The Wire), who disapproves of her stripper career and her increasing use of the cocaine she’s supposed to sell.
The film doesn’t flinch as it shows Reuben and Ebony crumble under the combination of financial burdens, illegal activities, and self-delusion. Reuben insists he’ll only deal until he gets the money to pay off his elaborate DJ rig and his dingy (but undoubtedly expensive) loft. Ebony says she’ll only strip and deal until her brother’s out on his own. Nobody believes them, nor should they. Things fall apart in a hurry—Reuben loses his cocaine connection, and Ebony uses more coke than she sells, exacerbating their financial woes—and neither handles the change well.
It’s tough to watch people—even fictional characters—spiral into addiction and denial. The major strength of Polish Bar is that it feels real—not just in its low-budget, bordering-on-vérité cinematography, but in its strong performances and nuanced portrait of good people doing bad things for reasons only they believe. The fact that Piazza and Brooks are very good but not well-known helps sell the apparent realism of the film. On the other hand, the presence of actors like Hirsch, Badge Dale, Harrell, Meat Loaf, and Richard Belzer are sort of distracting in their familiarity. They all turn in great performances, but it’s strange watching something that feels like a documentary and having a moment of recognition, realizing it’s an actor, and being reminded that I’m just watching a movie. Still, I’d rather have recognizable actors doing great work than unknowns doing mediocre work (which is more common in films like this).
The elephant in the room is the presence of Moises (Dov Tiefenbach), Reuben’s Orthodox cousin. I give writers Ben Berkowitz and Ben Redgrave credit for making him a real, interesting character, and Tiefenbach for playing him subtly. Reuben wrestles with his Jewish identity throughout the film, but never is it more heavy-handed than when Moises turns up on the scene. He acts as a spiritual counselor, whether Reuben wants him to or not, which allows the writers to slip into atypically on-the-nose dialogue and foreshadowing of Reuben’s character arc. Moises feels more like a dramatic construct than a real, necessary presence in this film, which undermines its otherwise impressive verisimilitude.
Overall, though, Polish Bar is an extremely well-made, well-written, and well-acted film. It’s a little rough around the edges, which benefits the film’s style but may turn off a certain sect of moviegoers. Those who are open to low-budget indies will undoubtedly appreciate what it has to offer.