Based on the life of disgraced a polka sensation, Jacki Weaver, Jason Schwartzman and Jenny Slate round out a wacky comedy thats full of heart
There are three things you can always count on: death, taxes and that any movie with Jason Schwartzman playing a clarinet cant be all bad.
The Polka King, a return to Sundance for Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky after Infinitely Polar Bear, is definitely wacky, perhaps even a little zany, but as the pre-title card and closing credits photos remind us, this is based on a true story. That fact serves as a considerable engagement engine, as this is the type of story where, if someone told it to you, you might say, Man, they ought to make a movie about that!
Jack Black is Jan Lewan, a Polish immigrant completely in love with the American dream. You can pronounce that Yan or Jan, as he is too eager to please to have a preference. After working low-end jobs he meets up with a multi-instrumentalist named Mickey (Schwartzman) and they form a polka band in Pennsylvania. At a cancer telethon he meets a former Junior Miss Hazleton (Jenny Slate) and they fall in love. But in addition to his band hes got a store of Polish gewgaws, and the opportunity to buy into some high yield return investment packages.
Its unclear if Jan understands at first that hes building a ponzi scheme, but the film coupled with Jack Blacks beaming exuberance sells that he has no intention of doing harm. Maybe hes really convinced himself that everyone will come out wealthier on the other side. Either way, hes got a number of local geriatrics enamoured of his showmanship and pizzaz, who cant stop signing checks.
Polka musicians are an easy target for comedy and whats really going to top John Candy and Eugene Levy as Stan and Yosh, the Schmenge Brothers, from the old Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV? Luckily, after an initial high-energy onslaught (and Jenny Slate in some fabulous outfits), The Polka King goes easy on the aint they quirky? sequences that a cheap-shot filmmaker like Jared Hess has somehow turned into a career. Even though Jack Black is hamming it up to the Nth degree, this somehow turns into a film about characters you care about.
Thats not to say it isnt ridiculous. Theres a sexy dame in a dancing bear costume, for heavens sake. Also: Jacki Weaver as Jenny Slates mother dominates every scene in a way not seen since Lanie Kazans guest shots on The Nanny. (If you never watched The Nanny, thats a high camp compliment, believe me.)
Whats key is that even though this is a movie about a scoundrel, its all very optimistic. Forbes and Wolodarsky keep the frame bright and the filmmaking calls attention to itself only when necessary. In one such scene, Jan somehow hoaxes a group of people to buy into a European tour that includes a visit from the Pope and then somehow gets John Paul II to stop by for a group photo. If you ignore the part about going to jail, The Polka King is a great advertisement for the fake it til you make it manifesto.
While Id hate to see reactions from the folks who actually got swindled by Jan Lewan (he apparently owed close to $5m by the time he got caught), this is a weirdly enjoyable movie about terrible deeds. You may even find yourself humming oom-pah by the end.