The Polka King Review
The Polka King is a 2018 biographical comedy about a local Pennsylvania polka legend who develops a plan to get rich that shocks his fans and lands him in jail.
If there is anything to take away from Maya Forbes‘ uneven but often funny examination of the very real Jan Lewan, it is a reminder of just how talented Jack Black really is, an actor sort of stuck in a number of recycled roles in his career that every once in a while does astonishing things. Not quite as manic as he sometimes is on screen but nonetheless a kinetic force of energy, Black’s performance hurdles The Polka King well above the larger issues, making this a genuinely entertaining look at a man who just couldn’t stop what he started.
Polish immigrant Jan Lewan (Black), whose name nobody gets right and Jan himself doesn’t seem to know, is an avid polka lover, a band leader and singer in Pennsylvania who is building a name in the area. Diversifying, with a knick-knack shop and a flavored vodka, he is fully consumed by the American dream, hoping to bring along his wife Marla (Jenny Slate) and band, led by Mickey Pizzazz (Jason Schwartzman) to the big time. His typically older audience loves him and some come to invest, inspiring him to take their money with a promised high return, which, if you don’t register and file with the government, is pretty illegal, better known as a Ponzi scheme. In swoops the government, with agent Ron Edwards (J.B. Smoove) telling him he’s got to put an end to his deals and return the money or he’s off to jail. Horrified by the prospect, Jan promises to do so, however, it’s not so easy, and before long, he’s not only still taking money, he’s going bigger than ever before.
What could have easily been a kind of documentarian-esque approach, something already covered on the subject before, The Polka King instead makes this a character study, avoiding the more investigatory details in favor of personalities. This allows the filmmakers to put the focus on Jan himself and let Black run with the possibilities, not quite being a parody yet still exaggerated enough to be not exactly real. While this might upend anyone’s hopes of learning more about the motivations and legal ups and downs, it does give the movie some surprising exposure on Jan’s bizarre obsession. For those the real Jan financially ruined, it might be a bit souring as Black is endlessly likable, probably something that made his counterpart so successful, however, this is a film about being misguided and in the end, well, things catch up with the polka king.
The enormous accomplishments of Jan Lewan are a thing of public record, he and his band earning legitimate success (and a Grammy nod is 1995) while he continued to deceive people for large sums of money. Jan, at least in the incomparable hands of Black, is never made to be a man of malice – he’s genuinely panicked and emotional when he realizes he’s breaking the law – it’s just he’s a straddled by compulsion, and like he says in the film to the exasperated Mickey, he sees things and then makes them happen. And this begs us to ask whether it’s really okay to like a person that willingly stole millions of dollars, even if he served his time in jail (and was stabbed). Well, that’s a judgement informed outside the movie, for as film, The Polka King is real entertainment and a showcase for Jack Black to once again prove he’s a cinematic treasure.
The Polka King Review
Movie description: The Polka King is a 2018 biographical comedy about a local Pennsylvania polka legend who develops a plan to get rich that shocks his fans and lands him in jail.
Director(s): Maya Forbes
Actor(s): Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman
Genre: Biography, Comedy