Arriving 12 years after their first film, 1999’s “Straightman,” director Ben Berkowitz and co-scenarist/producer Ben Redgrave’s sophomore feature, “Polish Bar,” is a much slicker affair. But this similarly Chicago-set drama loses some of that first film’s raw honesty amid a cluttered narrative agenda whose surplus of subplots are unevenly developed. Tale of a young club DJ torn between his conservative Jewish family, musical aspirations and criminal associations is consistently watchable if ultimately less than satisfying. Patrons are more likely to step up to this “Bar” in home formats than via limited theatrical exposure.
The filmmakers starred in “Straightman,” which had a raw truth redolent of both past Cassavetes and future mumblecore pics. “Polish Bar” shares “Straightman’s” focus on the Windy City’s slummier side, but this time Berkowitz and Redgrave remain offscreen, replaced by a solid professional cast amid improved production values.
Reuben Horowitz (Vincent Piazza) has a chip on his shoulder, having grown up in the shadow of a deceased father, and is regarded as a black sheep by his primly disapproving mother (Pamela Shaw, with Richard Belzer as her more tolerant second husband) and hectoring Uncle Sol (Judd Hirsch). He’s gone from mild juvenile delinquency to a job at Sol’s watch store, chafing under his uncle’s constant criticisms.
But Reuben also deliberately provokes their disapproval by moonlighting as a DJ in the titular strip club run by sleazebag Joe (Meatloaf), as well as courting the approval of local hip-hop kingmaker Fat Moe (Howard “Chingy” Bailey). Nor is his choice of friends exactly family-approved: The closest thing he’s got to a best mate is fellow club worker Tommy (James Badge Dale), who’s a loose-cannon “Mean Streets” De Niro to his brooding Keitel; he’s bedding big blonde emigre stage talent Edyta (Sara Krukowski) but seems more interested in another stripper, Ebony (Golden Brooks). Hoping to accrue enough cash to really launch his music career, Reuben is working on one last, major drug deal that’s sure to go wrong.
When things eventually hit bottom, the pic reaches a murky catharsis that allows Ruben to reconcile with his heritage (and gives mom an “I hef no son!” moment, a la “The Jazz Singer”). But that central conflict is just sputteringly articulated, best in scenes where Reuben banters with his Orthodox cousin (Dov Tiefenbach), visiting during their ailing grandfather’s (Maury Cooper) last days.
Generally, there are simply too many characters cluttering the pic’s background with their own underexplored dramas, including Tommy’s violent denial of his possible homosexuality and Ebony’s home life with a younger brother (Maestro Harrell). This overpopulated canvas bleeds any real suspense from the crime theme, even as it ensures “Bar” has nary an idle or dull moment. Berkowitz and Redgrave have an instinctive grasp of different milieus and their disparate speech rhythms, though the long interim between features may have left this one burdened with more ideas than it can comfortably handle.
Perfs are good, packaging polished while sustaining the required gritty atmosphere. A highlight is the propulsive soundtrack of mostly local recording artists.