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THE POLKA KING (2018) review

January 22, 2018

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written by: Maya Forbes & Wallace Wolodarsky
produced by: Jack Black, Stuart Cornfeld, Monica Levinson, Priyanka Mattoo, David Permut, Shivani Rawat, Wallace Wolodarsky
directed by: Maya Forbes & Wallace Wolodarsky
rated: TV-14 (for language and a violent image)
runtime: 94 min.
U.S. release date: January 12, 2018 (Netflix Exclusive)

 

“How can some cut rate polka musician give you 12% when the bank only gives you 3?”

 

The great unplayed role in Jack Black‘s career is Harold Hill in “The Music Man” as he has now made essentially his second film where he plays the famed huckster by way of portraying a real person. In 2011’s “Bernie,” Richard Linklater revitalized the funny man’s career by gifting him with the role of a lifetime, and now Black is back in familiar territory for “The Polka King.”

Based on the true story of polka musician Jan Lewan, who ran a ponzi scheme in central Pennsylvania throughout the 80s and 90s. What makes Lewan’s story so unique, however, is that he poured nearly all of the money back into his many businesses. The man never stopped working around the clock while simultaneously taking more and more money from more and more people. It’s a truly bizarre story.

 

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Portraying the former polka king cum financial fraud, Black gets to run hog wild and it works for the vast majority of the film’s running time. He paints a picture of a Polish immigrant who works multiple jobs, chasing the American dream, and keeping his dreams of playing music full time alive by sweet talking old ladies that love polka. Like cinematic criminal Max Bialystock before him, he then figures out a way to bilk these old ladies out of money – though via very different tactics.

By virtue of Black’s tremendous likability, he is able to demonstrate a character whose actions are reprehensible but who remains wholly empathetic. Nearly every interaction he has with people, they pronounce his name a different way and he tells them to call him whatever they like. This desire to please everyone will eventually lead him to ruin, but it’s what gave him the drive to succeed in the first place. And yes, Black manages to do all of this while wearing that ridiculous looking dutch page boy haircut.

Similar to “Bernie,” this film also ends with footage of the real man Black was portraying, but unlike the earlier film, he bears almost no resemblance to the real Lewan. However, he is probably the only actor in Hollywood—next to maybe Sam Rockwell—that could have pulled off the unique combination of charm, manic energy, and dark tendencies so well. He may not look like Lewan, but I guarantee he embodies his spirit.

 

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The cast surrounding Black is equally spectacular. Jenny Slate absolutely nails the central Pennsylvania accent and looks right at home as Lewan’s beauty queen wife. Jason Schwartzman is right at home in the denim clad, feather haired era in which the film is set. And Jacki Weaver steals nearly every scene she’s in portraying a character somehow broader than Black’s but every bit as earnestly played. I worried she might fall right back into her character from “Silver Linings Playbook,” but she’s absolutely spectacular.

Husband and wife team Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky co-wrote and directed the film, and it’s a competently made comedy that mostly relies on keeping pace with its frantic and broadly drawn characters. It’s a competently made film with little to no personality. It also strangely features several polka numbers performed in full, which is just an odd choice for any film, even one titled “The Polka King.”

But nevermind all of that. If you’re a Jack Black fan and a Netflix subscriber, there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t watch this film. Like last month’s “Jumanji,” this film caters to the comic actor’s biggest assets. It’s truly great to watch him get to play around as he does in both of these films, and sometimes just turning on the cameras and letting a great cast go is enough to make something enjoyable. It lacks the focus needed to go from good to great, but there’s still a lot here to love.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

 

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