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TJFF 2012: ‘Polish Bar’ is no Matisyahu

Polish Bar

Directed by Ben Berkowitz

Written by Ben Berkowitz and Ben Redgrave

USA, 2010

For those who aren’t in the know, there is an amazing phenomenon in the music community known as Matisyahu. With an eclectic style ranging from hip-hop, rock, and reggae fusion, Matisyahu is known as “the most intriguing reggae artist in the world” and was named the Top Reggae Artist by Billboard in 2006.

It just so happens that he’s a Hassidic Jew.

Matisyahu (real name Matthew Paul Miller) is a positive example of an individual embracing two seemingly conflicting cultures to, by synthesizing his diverse influences, create wondrous pieces of music.

Ben Berkowitz’ drama film, Polish Bar, tries to modernize this example by telling the story of a young Jewish DJ, but the result is a narrative with a drastically conflicting identity, let alone its characters’.

Vincent Piazza (from Boardwalk Empire) is Reuben, an aspiring Chicago DJ who tries to financially realize his dreams by working at his uncle’s jewelry store, playing music at a strip club, and dealing drugs. However, as his intensifying money problems begin to catch up with him, Reuben’s life takes a turn for the worse, causing him to reflect on his beliefs and actions.

Polish Bar initially feels like a typical dance movie, about a boy struggling against family pressure to become that dancer that he’s always wanted to be. Although conventional, this kind of story arc would’ve at least had an identity and a clear purpose, but the film is entirely muddled in its focus.

Along with being one of those dance movies, Polish Bar also tries to be a crime thriller, a character study, a family drama, and a social/religious commentary. The result is a film that isn’t any of the above, never connecting the dots between its many and differing points of interests.

The main reason for Polish Bar’s shortcomings is its lackadaisical concentration. While switching between its many narrative obligations, parts of the film will stagnate in its importance, and because this happens to all aspects of the storytelling, everything feels paltry.

Various characters, back-stories, and situations are injected to give the film a semblance of life, but their overall irrelevance gives it the opposite effect. Nudity and overt expletives are used to artificially construct an atmosphere of seedy discontentment, but the flaccid emotional impact of everything makes the entire effort sterile.

Rueben himself is unlikeable and flawed beyond the point of reasonable sympathy, but the ending sees that he gets his just desserts. However, the rest of the film, where we are forced to watch his unavailing escapades, is tedious to say the least.

– Justin Li

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