“The Polka King” tells the true story of Jan Lewan, a Polish immigrant who, through the brilliance of self promotion and grassroots marketing, became the “King of Pennsylvania Polka.” Jan worked hard at odd jobs and embodied the spirit of the American Dream — that is, until he devised a Ponzi scheme to cheat his elderly fans out of hundreds of thousands of their savings.
Jack Black steps into the shoes of Lewan and while this isn’t one of his best performances, it’s entertaining enough. He’s a little too over the top and hammy at times, making Jan feel like a one-dimensional character. The supporting cast overshadows the film’s star and are far more memorable, from Jacki Weaver as a blunt, screeching mother in law to the always dependable Jenny Slate as Jan’s adoring wife Marla to the enjoyable Jason Schwartzman in a very funny role as clarinet player Mickey Pizzazz.
And while Black is musical enough, the polka musical numbers are almost always dreadful. Polka isn’t exactly an enjoyable musical genre to begin with but coupled with Black’s trademark bug eyed, wide-stanced strut, it becomes even more ridiculous and agonizing to sit through.
This is what makes the project so confusing — the filmmakers treat their subject as an ultimate joke yet lavish much more sympathy on Lewan than his actual victims. Call me crazy, but lying to and stealing the nest egg out from under old folks makes you a bit of a rotten person. Not helping matters is the flat direction and stale writing from Maya Forbes, and Wallace Wolodarsky.
What’s so compelling about it all is the story, which isn’t so much that there was a scam going on but that not one person ever really stopped to question where the money was coming from. It’s still fun to watch Black as Lewan, especially as he tries to talk his way out of and into things like a confrontation with a government agent, a private meeting with the Pope at the Vatican, or bribing the announcer at the second-rate Mrs. Pennsylvania beauty pageant.
The film was released on Netflix and that pretty much sums up my thoughts on it: not quite good enough for a major theatrical release but is an enjoyable diversion for a Friday night at home.