In the proper hands, The Polka King very well could be a scathing treatise on the “American Dream” as viewed through the cloudy idealistic eyes of an opportunistic immigrant whose class ascension is contingent on his financial deception as much as his patriotism. There are undeniably pointed elements to Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky‘s retelling of the rise and fall of Jan Lewan, the titular polka king and Jack Black’s latest starring role, who was sold on the US as a place where anyone could find success and finds himself conning people to make his archaic, old world fantasies of “polka stardom” a reality. Falsely offering his elderly patrons investments and promissory notes to keep his eccentric dream alive, he bumbles his way to local fame and fortune as the hollow greed his new home country has instilled in him leads him down a path to prison. There is the potential for a moving tragicomic exercise in the Jan Lewan story, but sadly the latest Netflix feature settles for a middling goofball romp that has a few smiles but little staying power.
What fails Lewan’s lower-class immigrant ennui is Black’s hokey, Looney Tunes performance which essentially boils the man down to a heavily caricatured, but honorably enthusiastic, accent. The comic veneer of Black’s portrayal is laid on much too thick to approach any sincere revelations of Lewan’s character, even when the script suddenly detours from the vaudevillian absurd to the sobering seriocomic in its second act. When the Securities and Exchange Commission comes knocking at his door and Lewan confronts the fact his American Dream built on the exploitation of the elderly is about to crumble, Black and the script are stymied from expressing the despondency of the situation like they want because an end-of-the-rope lament sounds awkward in puerile broken English. The Jan Lewan story, from what can be gleamed here, is meant to have a degree of tragedy within its farcical shenanigans of polka and ponzi schemes, but The Polka King cannot rise to this occasion when guided by a game but misdirected Jack Black performance.
Worse yet is the utter lack of focus in the script structure to give the Jan Lewan story any direction. After his first moral lapse where he is freely taking thousands of dollars in investments from the elderly, the film concedes this main plot is repeating itself over the 15 year timeline of the film and hastily introduces and diverts all focus to footnotes from Jan Lewan’s life to sublimate. A third act beauty pageant subplot is seemingly plucked from his wife’s (an underutilized Jenny Slate) new sense of jealousy over her husband’s success and the film awkwardly shifts to accommodate this new direction. While pulled from reality and at the very least extends Jan’s idealism of America where even he could be married to a beauty queen, the pacing of the film for this and every other attention stealing subplot is slowed to a crawl. Even at a taut hour and a half The Polka King feels rushed and directionless, and that doesn’t even factor in the 10 or so polka numbers we are forced to sit through or the trip to visit the pope which somehow couldn’t wrestle a laugh out of such a scenario.
Speaking of, I started this review with a pitch for the film to be more dramatically driven because as a comedy it is woefully limp. I got the feeling that the faith in Black’s accent to carry the film to some suitable laugh was established early on, like because HE spoke that means we laugh. It’s difficult to discern when the film is laughing with Lewan and when it drops the pretense and callously ribs him and his “kooky foreigner” schtick. Conversely the more dramatic turns were readily pronounced in The Polka King and could have used its own film to showcase their potential.
I wonder if Jame Franco’s now award winning turn as the “vaguely European eccentric with a thick accent” Tommy Wiseau has opened the floodgates for a bevy of actors to follow in his footsteps. Black throws himself into this thinly defined roll and even if this is evidently the actor giving as his all, his wide-eyed mugging is let down by a flimsy script and so much wasted potential. I maintain the Jan Lewan story is not without its quirks, but just because it’s about a Polish Polka musician doesn’t mean its status as a comedy is inherent or even earned.