Truth is stranger than fiction. Jan Lewan was a Polish immigrant who lived a non- traditional version of the American Dream. Lewan started with a polka band, but was soon the head of various businesses, married to Miss Pennsylvania, meeting the Pope, and a Grammy nominated musician. This incredible rise was followed by an equally dramatic fall. Netflix’s latest original movie, The Polka King, chronicles this interesting story.
Jack Black stars as Lewan and does an excellent job. Lewan was able to achieve his unbelievable success thanks in large part to his charm. Black is incredibly charming in the role playing a loving husband, affable businessman, and inspiring band leader. The problem is Lewan is also dishonest. This is not a gradual change in character; this happens throughout the movie and sometimes even in the same scene. Lewan quickly accepts what he is doing is wrong, making it impossible to feel pity for his actions. The part is confusing, but Black plays the part well.
Other characters also suffer from this odd dichotomy. Jacki Weaver plays Lewan’s mother-in-law, Barb. She is understandably suspicious about the family’s sudden unexplained wealth. The odd decision is made to paint her as an uncaring shrew who does not appreciate Lewan’s hard work and who longs to see him fail. Barb goes back and forth between ridiculous comedy and actual foil. It is confusing for the audience and Weaver’s over acting makes this even more difficult.
Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky’s screenplay may be the problem. The Polka King wants us to pity those who should know better and dislike those who are understandably concerned. The film, moving too quickly, runs slightly more than an hour and a half, which seems like it would be right for the story it tells and yet, nothing seems to be given enough time to develop and events unfold at a lightning pace, with little to no explanation. Too many insignificant plot threads are focused on at the expense of the interesting main story while seemingly important moments are barely touched on and never referenced again. Worse, between the lack of storytelling, there are some genuinely funny moments. The cast works well with each other and the scenes are filled with humor. The Polka King is definitely a Comedy, but the writing reaches for something more. Unfortunately, it cannot seem to decide what that something is. Most confusing, is the attitude towards the victims whose money was stolen. From Ron Edwards’s (J.B. Smoove) monologue involving tax payers to Barb’s parking lot encounter with an elderly couple, Forbes and Wolodarsky clearly think the blame should not fall on a lying con man.
The Polka King is a funny movie with strong performances built around an interesting story. Regrettably, the writing does not do Lewan’s tale or the cast justice and the tone is constantly changing and thus prevents the audience from getting invested. The Polka King is a decent movie that would have been better with a tighter focus.