REVIEW: The Polka King (2018)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of The Polka King – Directed by Maya Forbes.

The Polka King is a comedic biopic that tells the true story about Jan Lewan (played by Jack Black), a Polish polka band leader and con artist, who became a convicted criminal while exploring the depths of the American Dream. The film is far more interested in his successes and deceptions than in his time in prison, however, and that gives us plenty of time to see surprisingly strong supporting cast of actors like Jenny Slate — playing his wife, Marla Lewan; Jacki Weaver — his mother-in-law, Barb; and Jason Schwartzman — his good friend and one of the band members in his polka band.

“In Poland, everybody do bribes. Do you do bribes?”

The first test that a movie like The Polka King with a lead man like Jack Black playing an un-American character has to pass for it to have any chance of succeeding is the accent-test. Is the accent believable? Does it fit the character? The answer to these types of questions, at least for me, is a hesitant ‘no.’ Already in his first scene as Jan Lewan, I was put off by the accent Black had adopted.

One has to understand that Jack Black is an actor who has previously taken on roles in which he made use of stereotypical accents for comedic effect, and I found it hard to take Black seriously with the accent he used. I think the problem, for me, was the very specific mixture of circumstances in The Polka King.

I think the problem is that you have a comedic actor known for his funny voices and his enthusiastic singing, and then he adds a fairly generic foreign accent, which could be believed to be slightly offensive, to his character in a biopic that I wouldn’t categorize as a laugh-out-loud comedy. It becomes slightly awkward. At least, it did for me.

For example, take a look at Tom Hanks, who in spite of his comedic work is seen mostly as a dramatic actor nowadays. In The Terminal, Hanks put on a thick foreign accent, but it did not seem offensive, to me, at all. I think it is the mixture of circumstances that ruined Black’s performance, for me.

Basically, The Polka King is a biopic about how a man was seduced by the concept of the American dream and whose fascination with it (as well as his unmatched optimism) made him a con man with a heart of gold. But even if the story told here is mostly accurate it is the ‘heart of gold-take’ that just doesn’t sit right with me.

I find it so unnaturally unsettling that the film wants us to love or, at the very least, sympathize with Jan Lewan, when equal care and attention is not paid to both the con-man and the ones he has deceived. Because he isn’t just deceiving some unlucky schmuck. No, he’s actually the kind of person who would hoodwink retirees.

It definitely is possible to craft a character that is sympathetic in spite of these types of sins, you need only look at one of television’s greatest shows, which I’ll namedrop in a second, to find someone capable of that. But you won’t find it in Jack Black’s version of The Wolf of Wall Street. Lewan’s greatest supporters, a lovely elderly couple, are scolded by his mother-in-law — who, up to that point, was unhappy with Lewan herself — for being greedy after he is found to be a complete and utter fraud.

These are the kinds of character complexities in deception that Bob Odenkirk is so excellent at playing with in Better Call Saul, but Jack Black and director Maya Forbes never find the complexities of this character nor any important angle to the story. As the end credits started to roll, I was left with these types of questions: what is the point with this? Why is the film showing him in an overly sympathetic light?

Now, during the end credits they actually show a photo of Jan Lewan standing next to Donald Trump as if to point to a larger comment about con men who may seem to be well-meaning to some. There is a much more interesting film hidden in and hinted at in the end credits. But that is it — one quick and half-hearted attempt at saying something of weight thrown in there at the end of what is otherwise a watchable but watered down, inadequately executed biopic with fewer laughs than one might expect from a Jack Black film.

5.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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