A film review by Craig J. Koban February 19, 2018


2018, No MPAA Rating, 95 mins.


Jack Black as Jan Lewan  /  Jenny Slate as Marla  /  Jason Schwatzman as Mickey  /  Jacki Weaver as Barb

Directed by Maya Forbes  /  Written by Wallace Wolodarsky and Maya Forbes



The new Netflix comedy THE POLKA KING tells a fact based narrative about a Polish American polka band leader named Jan Lewan, whom during the 1990's was driven by the power of attaining the American Dream, albeit via deplorably unethical and illegal ways.  

Now, the premise of a polka singer, beloved by many in his tight fanbase and inner circle, actually becoming a lecherous crook because he simply couldn't help himself is material that seems ripe for comedic exploration, even though, deep down, this man committed pretty loathsome crimes that hurt many.   Yet, the minor miracle of THE POLKA KING is that it miraculously makes us like this fiend, mostly because of the larger than life vitality that Jack Black brings to this character.  There are arguments to be made that this film doesn't really tap into the darker underbelly of this man's criminal empire, but it certainly does so with highly amusing and entertaining results. 



Jan (Black) is a first generation Polish immigrant that's shown early on in the film as a fairly well meaning husband to his wife Marla (Jenny Slate) that's trying to support her as an ambitious minded polka singer/band leader.  His gigs have energy and seem enthusiastically embraced by those in attendance, but they really fail to pay the bills, leaving the cash starved Jan working a series of demeaning and low-paying jobs just to make ends meet.  Even though he's lovingly supported by his wife and friend/bandmate Mickey (Jason Schwartzman), Jan nevertheless feels trapped by his lack of success as a singer.  He does have a polka themed gift shop on the side, but business is so laughably slow that how it stays afloat is kind of stupefying.  All Jan wants is his piece of the American Pie and to be a dominate and well off touring polka singer, but his frequent travels and bills are starting to pile up, leaving him desperate. 

So...Jan decides to turn to...petty fraud to build his polka empire to the levels of success once deemed impossible.  His plan is fiendishly slick: Realizing that a majority of his fans are senior citizens, he asks for those most loyal to pledge monetary investments in him and his enterprise with a lofty promise of giving them back 12 per cent interest and a false promise of a large monetary stake in his brand.  Of course, the swooning geezers that worship him pay up - oftentimes to ridiculous high levels - with the naive belief that Jan will become an overnight sensation and, in turn, pay them back accordingly.  Astoundingly, the plan works and with the huge increase in capital Jan and his family begin to live the high roller lifestyle, even with the Federal government stepping in and telling him, in no uncertain terms, to stop what's essentially a Ponzi scheme.  Under delusions of grandeur - and perhaps supreme stupidity - Jan continues his con games, but with the ever vigilant and watchful eye of his domineering mother in law Barb (a firecracker Jacki Weaver), Jan's wild life up the success ladder, rather predictably, comes crashing down. 

THE POLKA KING would have been an awfully hard movie to swallow if it weren't based on a true story.  It's almost impossibly absurd to believe, which I think helps allow for it to work perhaps better as a dark comedy than as a straight forward biopic drama.  The makers here are not attempting to make a serious and contemplative portrait of Jan Lewan's duplicitous rise to fame, but rather are twisting his tale down decidedly weird and flamboyant avenues, which ultimately works.  There's definitely something to be said about whether or not Lewan was a ruthless minded heel or a decent and big hearted chap that let his desire to be big and famous cloud his better judgment along the way.  Was he a purely greedy loser or did career aspirations cover up his greed and level headedness?  There's ample merit to both sides, but THE POLKA KING ostensibly focuses on the notion of Lewan as an affable chap that wasn't evil, but rather blinded by how his wrongs hurt others while helping himself in the long run. 

I don't think this would have worked without Jack Black steering this very rickety ship.  THE POLKA KING is proof positive that when the actor is given just the right material to harness and swing for the fences with that he can be an unstoppably appealing force.  Black plays Lewan as a figure of infectious energy and captivating spirit, and in the process makes this unendingly corrupt celebrity so oddly engaging as a result.  Watching THE POLKA KING I was reminded of his undervalued work in Richard Linklater's BERNIE, where he also played another deeply dishonest soul whose unlawful actions eventually got the better of him.  Black evokes in Lewan a man of well meaning intent that oozes his own unique brand of Svengali-like charm, which allows so many suckers to buy into his Ponzi scheme.  Black is also solid, though, at portraying Lewan when his does hit rock bottom, fully realizing the error of his ways, even after such a long period of many years when he turned a blind eye to his crimes; he has not been this good in a film in years. 

The supporting cast built around Black is also quite strong, especially Slate as Lewan's passionately devoted wife who seems to have her own unique brand of tunnel vision when it comes to how her husband amassed such a large fortune so quickly.  I also admired Schwartzman as Lewan's BFF and bandmate in arms, who in his own right is a pathetic individual that just can't seem to find a way to permanently segregate himself from Lewan's negative sphere on influence.  Jacki Weaver is on a whole other madcap performance level as her delightfully unhinged Lewan family member that seems to be the only person in this film that hasn't drank the tainted polka king Kool-Aid.  Her work is a bit more histrionic than her colleagues, but she nevertheless scores some of the film's better laughs as the audience conduit.  The circus-like menagerie of colorfully eccentric personas that populate THE POLKA KING helps to keep the film's lively momentum going, even when the film seems to stumble and run out of a bit of gas as it tries to draw itself to a conclusion. 

Is this film too sugarcoated, though?  Maybe.  Lewan defrauded so many countless victims (400 in 22 states) and eventually went to prison for five years by a Federal judge as well as a seven year sentence by a state judge, both of which were served concurrently.  This man, when all is said and done, was a petty thief that never did pay pack one nickel of the money he stole.  In so many indisputable ways, his crimes were indefensible, which could help fuel the fire that THE POLKA KING is a glossed over expose of this man.  Still, as an enthrallingly offbeat comedy about a petty hustler drunk with career gluttony that, yes, also happens to be set in the equally strange world of polka music, THE POLKA KING is nevertheless a snappy and wickedly droll screwball farce that seems tailor made for its lead star.  It also serves as a cautionary tale to warn all viewers about thinking twice before donating money to your local polka singer/gift shop owner, no matter how smoothly charismatic and convincing he may seem.  

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