Directed by: Maya Forbes
Premise: Based on true events. Jan Lewan (Jack Black) emigrates from Poland to America and becomes the Pennsylvania Polka King. His pursuit of success leads him to create a series of business that are eventually exposed as a Ponzi scheme.
What Works: Jan Lewan was a Polish immigrant who came to America and got to work as an entrepreneur. He created a variety of businesses and made a name for himself as a polka musician. But Lewan’s empire was a sham and he convinced elderly polka fans to invest in bogus business opportunities ultimately bilking unwitting customers of millions of dollars. The Polka King tells Lewan’s story by mixing a variety of genres. It is a show business cautionary tale and an immigrant story as well as a family drama. These different storytelling forms lean on each other to create something that is unexpected and quirky and fun. The movie has goofy tone, which befits the strange circumstances of this tale and its unusual characters. The Polka King is led by Jack Black as Jan Lewan and it’s the perfect sort of role for Black as it showcases his charisma, high energy comedy, and musical talent. Black and the filmmakers have a challenge of making this story credible while keeping the tone light and they manage to do that. Black pours on the charm and Lewan’s boundless enthusiasm is contagious and makes it believable that people would fall for this man’s ludicrous business proposals. Also impressive is Jenny Slate as Marla Lewan. She is the unwitting accomplice of her husband and bought into his facade before anyone else did. Just as Jack Black sells the surface appeal of the con, Jenny Slate fills in the human aspects of this story as Marla realizes that so much of her life was a lie. Jacki Weaver is also notable as Marla’s mother. The older woman senses that something is not right and Weaver brings a lot of energy to the film. The Polka King has a distinct look. It’s often kitschy, even garish, but in a way that suits the world in which this story takes place. The Polka King has a distinct visual texture that hints at the artificiality of Jan Lewan’s public image and the fraudulence of his business ventures. All these elements come together in a satire of the American dream, poking light fun at it and revealing how people’s willingness to believe provides cover for this shyster.
What Doesn’t: The production values and filmmaking style of The Polka King occasionally has the feel of a Saturday Night Live skit. In some ways that’s fitting for the tone of this story and its goofy characters. However, The Polka King slides between scenes that are really broad and other scenes that are realistic and those different pieces don’t always quite fit together. The stylized and occasionally fake looking sequences create an unreality about the film. As a result, The Polka King sidesteps the real consequences of Jan Lewan’s actions. Lots of people, many of them elderly, invested their savings in Lewan’s Ponzi scheme and lost it all. The film never deals with that very seriously and it’s largely brushed aside. And that’s a missed opportunity because this story of an American dream gone bad has some darker and more subversive implications that aren’t seen to a conclusion.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: The Polka King is a lighthearted satire. The movie might not exploit this real life story for all its worth but it does make for a goofy and entertaining film with a strong central performance by Jack Black.
Episode: #699 (May 20, 2018)