The Polka King

Watched: 14 January

The Polka King is the second film by Maya Forbes, whose debut feature was the infinitely-better-than-this Infinitely Polar Bear. It’s a comedy about the Polish-American musician Jan Lewan, who in real life ripped off hundreds of unsuspecting people through a Ponzi scheme in the 1990s that apparently involved various business operations (as well as being a musician and local TV personality, the Pennsylvania-based Lewan ran a Polish goods store and travel agency). He was profiled by the 2007 documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King, which in turn led to the development of this title, picked up at Sundance in 2017 and distributed by Netflix. It’s basically a Jack Black vehicle, and as Lewan the actor is afforded around 90 minutes to goof around onstage, try out a generic Eastern European accent and let his expressive eyebrows loose (and boy does he let them loose). Black imbues the character of Lewan with a simple, childlike desire to please, and for the most part the film portrays him as a businessman-chancer who has the best of intentions but who gets swallowed up by debt (slight hints are made that he’s actually a habitual liar and a crook who knew exactly what he was doing all along). In reality, Lewan defrauded hundreds of people out of millions of dollars and spent time in prison, and there’s a scene near the end here – in which two elderly, conned pensioners are publicly lambasted for being greedy – that feels a bit mean-spirited towards those who invested in Lewan with goodwill. Black’s a Marmite performer but I’ve often enjoyed watching him, and there’s something of his Bernie Tiede from Richard Linklater’s Bernie here, though he overplays the hapless foreigner shtick on several occasions. There’s larger-than-life support from Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman and Jacki Weaver (hey, all four stars begin with a ‘J’), and there’s a great sequence involving the Pope, of all people, but overall the film is a bit of an oddball outlier comedy that sadly rarely elicits any actual laughter. (*½)