Fans of Nacho Libre may be the ones enjoying The Polka King more than other Netflix viewers. After all, it’s a crooked “Robin Hood” story starring Jack Black as an eccentric entertainer. The Polka King, however, is a biopic.
Black portrays Pennsylvanian polka musician and aspiring businessman Jan Lewan. Even though he commands the venues he performs at with his band, Lewan has big dreams of headlining an empire while staying in the good books with his fanbase. Such as Black does with his roles, Lewan’s heart is bigger than his brain. When it comes to establishing his brand, Jan haphazardly develops a system where one “investment” pays for another “investment” and so on. His loyal elderly followers are smitten by Jan’s showmanship and his ambition, making it easy for them to hand over thousands of dollars to support whatever Jan is working on. Details are always vague, but lucrative percentages cooked up by Jan are persuasive enough to appear as deals.
As a biopic, The Polka King is surface-deep. Jack Black is amusing as the Polish musician, but there’s so much more to this local legend-slash-con man that begs elaboration. A lot of Jan’s deflections, motivations, and schemes abstain from solid explanations, which may be how they were pitched to Jan’s investors in real-life, but it’s too light to give the film legibility. Director/screenwriter Maya Forbes (Infinity Polar Bear) and her co-writer Wallace Wolodarsky (The Simpsons) base their film off of John Mikulak and Joshua von Brown’s documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King – I wonder if the doc has more substance than this.
Forbes and Wolodarsky may be petering out on the story because they want to maintain a consistent string of laughs. In that case, even with a spotty script and a corner-cutting finale, The Polka King does work as an outrageous comedy. Jack Black is naturally (and oddly) charming as he intelligently comprehends Jan’s off-kilter positive reinforcement as the musician digs himself deeper in debt and distrust. Aside from Black, Jenny Slate (as Jan’s pageant-winning wife, Maria) has some good moments portraying her support and pent-up jealousy towards Jan, and Jason Schwartzman (as Jan’s right-hand bandmate) is awkwardly funny as he mulls over his own moral conflicts. The older supporting cast, filling out Jan’s sweet fanbase, are scene-stealers in their own right.
The Polka King is a lot of fun. Go in to the film with the same expectations you’ve had for past Jack Black broad comedies, and you won’t be disappointed.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie