The Polka King, 2017.
Directed by Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky.
Starring Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, Jacki Weaver, Vanessa Bayer and J.B. Smoove.
Local Pennsylvania polka legend Jan Lewan develops a plan to get rich that shocks his fans and lands him in jail.
Mere weeks after he stole the show in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Jack Black emerges with another reminder of how shrewd directors can funnel his larger-than-life presence into a truly memorable performance, this time from the polar opposite end of the filmmaking spectrum.
The Polka King, based on the scarcely believable true story of Polish-American polka magnate Jan Lewan (Black), follows Lewan’s rise from lowly pizza delivery guy to polka superstar and apparent entrepreneur in his own right, even meeting a wife (Jenny Slate) along the way. Sure, he operated a Ponzi scheme in order to amass his fortune, fleecing the elderly and the naive with the promise of improbable financial gains, but that’s exactly what the American Dream is all about, right?
This might sound strange to say, but the latest movie from Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky (Infinitely Polar Bear) bears an unexpected resemblance to a Scorsese joint; it’s a rags-to-riches-to-rags tale about a plucky hotshot hoping to make it big, and with a few tonal tweaks and some dead bodies strewn about the place, it’d be a potent companion piece to, say, The Wolf of Wall Street.
At its heart, The Polka King is a twisted tragi-comedy, or perhaps more aptly a comedy-of-errors; it’s tough to know exactly which because Lewan’s precise motivations are never clearly explained. However, the implication seems to be that Lewan didn’t intend to defraud the elderly townsfolk he took payments from, and propelled by a fatally optimistic outlook and steadfast belief in the American Dream, truly felt his talent could propel him and his investors to nothing but financial prosperity.
There’s a delicious irony to seeing Lewan’s peculiar, chintzy empire soar all while he, seemingly unknowingly, pushes himself closer and closer to the edge of a cliff from which he cannot escape. Even more oblivious is Slate’s wife Marla, almost to the point of incredulity, all while Jan’s bandmate, the self-styled Mickey Pizzazz (a terrific Jason Schwartzman), mostly turns a blind eye in order to ride the gravy train.
It’s only Jan’s feisty mother-in-law (Jacki Weaver) who manages to see plainly through Jan’s deceit, bleating about the implausibility of it all in practically every scene, getting increasingly agitated as Jan’s improbable kingdom gets ever closer to crumbing. Weaver, adopting yet another loony hairdo following her hilarious wig in last month’s The Disaster Artist, swings for the fences and threatens to steal every scene she’s in away from Black.
Ultimately, though, it’s Black holding the film together, creating more of Lewan than the mere exotic caricature he could so easily have settled for. Jan’s oddball likability, even when he’s straight-up scamming people, may be perplexing to audiences and leave them unsure how to feel about both him and the movie entire, but make no mistake that underneath all his smiles, there’s a sure layer of sadness.
When the movie veers away from the nuttiness of Lewan’s increasingly convoluted scheme, this is a film about the perversity of the big lie sold to Americans, perhaps more so immigrants coming to the “land of opportunity.” In more specific terms, it’s a cri de coeur about the toils of the starving artist.
Schwartzman’s clarinet player Mickey perhaps says it best when he explains to Jan early on that one of his own pals wouldn’t even pay a measly $3 to listen to their band play, but gladly paid the same price for some of the venue’s overpriced food. If you’re not an established act, the value proposition of amateur art is depressingly low, which while not a terribly illuminating revelation, is a heart-rending takeaway all the same.
At just 95 minutes in length, it’s definitely arguable that the movie is a little too breezy for its own good and could have benefited from giving certain moments a more time to breathe, but on the flip-side it’s absolutely never a film that could be accused of sticking in one place for too long.
There’s also the issue that the film probably cuts Lewan far too much slack considering how carelessly he stole tens of thousands of dollars from well-meaning elderly folk. However, the film’s near-absurdist tone, relishing the fact that all of this supposedly happened, never skirts around the fact that Lewan’s personal bead on reality isn’t fixed on the same axis as most, which makes him decidedly harder to hate. Right down to the film’s final moments, Lewan can find hope and optimism in even the most dire of scenarios, which again, cements the film as a tragic comedy above all else.
The Polka King doesn’t quite deliver the knockout treatment this stranger-than-fiction tale probably deserves, but it’s not never not fascinating, rouses its share of gut-laughs, and is always accompanied by a creeping undercurrent of subtle dread and tension beyond the humour. Black hasn’t been better in quite some time, and there’s even a cracking supporting cast in the bargain.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.