Sundance 2017: The Polka King, by David Bax
The Polka King, from directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, aspires to be a stranger-than-fiction account of an eccentric real life swindler with a heart of gold. And, technically, that’s what it is. Its true purpose, however, eventually reveals itself to be an elaborate excuse for Jack Black to act crazy and speak in a thick, goofy accent.
Set mostly in the 1990s, The Polka King tells the story of Jan Lewan, a Polish-born band leader and ambitious small businessman who started a Ponzi scheme when he began taking investments from his many polka-happy fans. Lest the audience begin to suspect some sort of character study, Forbes and Wolodarsky make it clear from the beginning–having Black’s Lewan provide his whole backstory unsolicited in a self-consciously ridiculous monologue to a woman who just wanted an autograph–that this will be more comedy than biopic. The trouble is, they don’t stick to that mission and the end result is neither fish nor fowl.
What The Polka King does have going for it is some probably unintentional timeliness. Like our president, Lewan is a charlatan who gets by on bluster and exuberance, so confident that he actually seems to believe his own bullshit. “You say big thing and big thing happens. I not liar, I believer,” he explains to his wife, in a chillingly concise summation of not only his own success but that of Donald Trump. It’s too bad that Forbes and Wolodarsky aren’t interested in exploring that any further.
Black is certainly committed to the role and delivers plenty of laughs. But he’s too intent on being liked to flesh out the more sinister aspects of Lewan, something this story could have used. The supporting cast–Jenny Slate as wife Marla, Jacki Weaver as mother-in-law Barb and Jason Schwartzman as friend and clarinetist Mickey–are all solid but necessarily overshadowed.
By the end of the story, a lot of working class people have lost their life savings. Lewan’s narcissism and mania have had real, devastating consequences. Sadly, The Polka King would rather you not dwell on that too much because it might keep you from laughing.