Sundance 2017 Review: Jack Black shines in The Polka King
The Polka King is based on the insanely true story of Pennsylvania polka legend Jan Lewan and how he managed to convince several residents in Hazelton, PA to invest in his dream through a Ponzi scheme. The film stars Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, and Jacki Weaver and is written and directed by Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky. The Polka King is Forbes and Wolodarsky’s follow-up to Infinitely Polar Bear and is such an odd yet entertaining little film.
Over the last few years, there has been a lot of comedic films inspired by actual events. Just in 2016 alone, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, War Dogs, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Masterminds were released. There are so many interesting people in this world that I find it refreshing to watch comedies that are actually based on someone’s life. The Polka King is such a strange look into the life of Jan Lewan and how he managed to grow a polka empire over the course of six years.
Jack Black owns this film, and his performance as Jen Lewan is nothing short of terrific. Black disappears as this crazy Polish man. He really embraces the material with every bone in his body. At the Q&A that follow the screening, Forbes mentioned that Black felt very passionate about playing Jan and you can see that in his performance. What is interesting about Jan Lewan as a person is that he isn’t a bad person at all. He was completely unaware of any wrongdoing initially, and honestly, just became a victim of the stupidity of others. All of Jan’s actions were never done to hurt anyone. You can see in Black’s performance that Jan was simply trying to take care and provide for his family and friends.
Jan Lewan makes for such an interesting character study because he manages to get people to believe in him and invest in his dream. The film plays on the “American Dream” scenario and how if you can dream it, it can happen. There are several moments throughout this film where Jan discusses believing in oneself and doing what you want in life. I think it oddly fascinating to watch Jan convey so much passion through his music that people happily handed him thousands upon thousands of dollars without even questioning it.
Jan is married to a woman named Marla played by Jenny Slate. The character of Marla is almost as interesting as Jan is. These two people don’t seem to have much in common, yet somehow their relationship works. I thought it was a nice change of pace to see Slate take on this type of role. She wasn’t playing a character that she has played before, and I thought that she and Black shared a real interesting on-screen dynamic. I love that the story doesn’t overlook Marla and portrays her as an important role in Jan’s life. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who don’t know the story but let’s just say that Marla’s happiness is what leads to Lewan’s ultimate demise.
WhIle Black and Slate really give the material their best, Jacki Weaver does not. Her character is incredibly one-dimensional and pretty much unbearable to watch whenever she is on-screen. I was hoping that Weaver’s role as Marla’s mom would eventually win me over but that never happened. As the film went on, I just became more and more annoyed by her. I think it is hard to have an eccentric character such as Jan Lewan and then have the overbearing mother-in-law character as well. It also doesn’t help that Weaver’s performance doesn’t seem genuine. It felt like Weaver was just playing an unlikable character that lacked depth.
Rounding out the cast is Jason Schwartzman who plays Jan’s best friend and band leader Mickey. Schwartzman is very likable as Mickey and works well to offset the energy that Lewan has. The scene where Mickey tells Jan that he always wanted to be called Mickey Pizzazz was pretty hilarious. You can also see that Mickey as a person wasn’t much of a leader and needed quite a bit of reassurance which is why he consistently stood with Jan despite knowing that everything didn’t add up.
The script by Forbes and Wolodarsky is well-written and perfectly paced. The film’s short and sweet 95-minute runtime managed to keep my attention and I was invested in this crazy story all the way through. In terms of the direction, it was rather hit and miss for me. There were a few scenes where the direction just felt amateurish. There is one scene, in particular, where Jan and J.B. Smoove‘s character Ron Edwards are discussing how taking money from investors without proper paperwork is illegal. During this scene, the camera slowly kept zooming in and out and was incredibly distracting. It almost felt like the button on the camera got stuck, and no one bothered to reshoot the scene. There were a few other moments that just felt like bad green screen. I realize that the story takes place in the 1990s, so the cheesy commercials were great, but a few scenes looked a bit hokey and cheap.
All in all, The Polka King is a weird and entertaining little film with a brilliant performance by Jack Black. This crazy true story is fun to watch and Forbes and Wolodarsky perfectly capture Jan Lewan’s life on-screen. The Polka King is not going to work for everyone but it is the type of film that is destined to become a cult classic. This is one of those films that is so outrageous that you cannot help but be engrossed with the story being told. I always love films that make me want to learn more about a subject matter and after watching The Polka King, I want to spend several hours reading up on Jan Lewan.
Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s rating for The Polka King is a 7 out of 10.