The Polka King


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Jack Black and Jason Schwartzman in The Polka King - based on the remarkable true story of the world's only known Polka Ponzi scheme, this mix of comedy and tragedy is about Jan Lewan, a Polish immigrant who believed in the American Dream. But with big dreams came big mistakes for the man who became the "King of Pennsylvania Polka".
"Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky love their protagonist just a bit too much." | Photo: Andrei Bowden Schwartz

It may seem odd to accuse a comedy of being too affable but Jack Black's latest film takes such a broad brush to the true story of polka ponzi scheme perpetrator Jan Lewan that any emotional nuance is blotted out. Not to mention the fact that, whatever his motives, he received close to $5 million from people in illegal investments - interestingly, since a stint in jail, the real-life Lewan has pledged to pay back everyone, which could, in the fullness of time, make for a fascinating sequel.

But, inspired by the documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King, Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky - who previously made the much more finely calibrated Infinitely Polar Bear - love their protagonist just a bit too much.

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They're not alone, of course, Lewan has a way with people. A Polish immigrant who sets his sights on achieving the American Dream, he plans his takeover of the nation via the unlikely route of polka music. He proves to be a hit with the grey dollar circuit in Pennsylvania, although the large number of people in his band - including his best pal Mickey Pizzazz (Jason Schwartzman) - mean that profits are stretched thin. Lewan is shown here as a man who races through life at top speed - "No one works as hard as you, Jan. that's what's so sad," observes his acidic mother-in-law (played with nigh-on panto gusto by Jackie Weaver).

A man for whom the phrase larger-than-life could have been invented, his ambitions are undimmed by a lack of success and see him continually upping the stakes in a bid to make it big - "Nothing happens without you believe," he tells people. Black throws himself into the role with the same sort of brio that he brings to the animated Kung Fu Panda, but Forbes and Wolodarsky seem more interested in capturing his antics than probing too hard at Lewan's motives. The subsidiary characters, in particular his wife Marla (Jenny Slate), are as ephemeral as the knick-knacks Lewan sells in his Polish shop and laughs and goodwill only carry you so far. Too much dream, not enough reality.

Reviewed on: 10 Feb 2017
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A Polish migrant tries to make it big in Pennsylvania.

Director: Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky

Writer: Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky

Starring: Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, Jacki Weaver, JB Smoove, Robert Capron

Year: 2017

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US

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