'The Polka King': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A big, broad treatment of an off-kilter true crime story.

Jack Black plays an immigrant bandleader who starts a Ponzi scheme in Maya Forbes' sophomore feature.

Unbounded optimism is a great thing up to a point in The Polka King, Maya Forbes' feature version of the true story in which a flamboyant bandleader found himself swindling his aged fans out of millions. Jack Black, as the immigrant musician in question, finds a role that invites a great deal of Jack Black-ness, full of peppy showmanship and thickly accented dialogue. But even moviegoers with a strong tolerance for that shtick may be less than involved with this half-charming feature, which inspires some sympathy for its protagonist but not enough to carry the film. Commercial prospects are iffy, despite the strong cast.

This adaptation of John Mikulak's and Joshua Von Brown's doc The Man Who Would Be Polka King is a big left turn after Forbes' debut, the autobiographical Infinitely Polar Bear, campy and outrageous where that film sought the emotional core of extreme behavior. The stylization can be hard to take at times, however true to events it may be.

Black plays Jan Lewan, who came to America from Poland to chase dreams that seemingly had no limit. He formed a polka band, won the love of a beautiful bride (Jenny Slate's Marla), and developed a large following of kielbasa-devouring senior citizens across Pennsylvania. Still, he lived hand to mouth, starting innumerable offshoot ventures (a Polish knicknack store, for instance) in hopes that one would pay off and beget a commercial "empire."

We don't see him get the idea, but one day Lewan decides to invite his audience to invest in him, offering 12 percent interest to those who'll fund improvements to his stage show. It's not entirely clear, but he seems to do this in good faith. He doesn't know it's illegal until a visit from an SEC officer (played by J.B. Smoove), who tells him he must immediately return all the "illegal promissory notes" he has issued. When Lewan realizes he's about a quarter-million dollars too poor to do that, he bites his lip and does what any desperate gambler would do — he takes even larger investments from fans, imploring them not to tell others about this special opportunity. Things do not go smoothly from here, at least not for long.

In Richard Linklater's Bernie, Black walked a fine line, playing another unwilling true-crime protagonist without letting the man's eccentricities overwhelm the pathos. Here, however much we can smell Lewan's desperation, empathy is harder to come by. That's partly because of the assaultive nature of everything from flamboyant costumes to lousy pop-polka arrangements to the nightmarish mother-in-law played by Jacki Weaver, in a performance so huge it makes Black's look refined. And it's partly because the film doesn't seem to have a handle on the point at which Lewan's earnest belief that everything will work out — an optimism he outlines to bandmate/best pal Mickey (Jason Schwartzman) after miraculously finagling an audience with the Pope for his most loyal fans — turns to willful dishonesty. The real Lewan (who did time in prison for his schemes) has reportedly pledged to repay the nearly $5 million lost by those who trusted him. Polka King does make one curious to see how he tries to do it.

Production companies: ShivHans, Red Hour, Permut Presentations, Electric Dynamite
Cast: Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, J.B. Smoove, Vanessa Bayer, Jacki Weaver, Robert Capron, Willie Garson
Director: Maya Forbes
Screenwriters: Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky
Producers: David Permut, Stuart Cornfeld, Shivani Rawat, Monica Levinson, Wally Wolodarsky, Jack Black, Priyanka Mattoo
Executive producers: Erika Hampson, Debbie Liebling, Chris Mangano
Director of photography: Andrei Bowden Schwartz
Production designer: Carl Sprague
Costume designer: Susan Lyall
Editor: Catherine Haight
Composer: Theodore Shapiro
Casting director: Jeanne McCarthy
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (SidebarOrSection)
Sales: ICM, WME
93 minutes