The Polka King begins with a voiceover and white words on a black background. Perhaps not the start one would anticipate from a movie about a Ponzi-scheming polka singer/gift shop owner/pizza delivery guy.
Have no fear, the words spell out the following: “This really happened.” Then a beat. “In Pennsylvania.” The lights come up on a polka performance, led by an overweight blonde man dressed in a white suit and a red shirt in 1990, serenading a bunch of old people, backed by a dancing chicken.
So perhaps it’s the start one would anticipate after all.
Jack Black produces and stars as Jan Levan, a Polish immigrant who at the start of the feature is working away at making it as a polka band leader in small-town Pennsylvania. Jenny Slate plays his loyal, if insecure, wife Marla, Jason Schwartzman steals the movie as Mickey Stutz, while Jacki Weaver snarls her way through the movie as Marla’s mother.
Director Maya Forbes (The Larry Sanders Show) had quite the script to pull together: a true story about a polka band member, his family, his best friend Mickey, bribing the Vatican, a Ponzi scheme, a stabbing, and plenty of romantic drama is quite the task—and she almost pulls it off.
Coming in at just over 90 minutes, The Polka King isn’t here to sweat the details. It can’t—there are too many to string together. Yet some of the characters leave you wanting more. Black owns the screen—Levan is in almost every shot of the movie, his lilting accent and relentless, upbeat nature pulls the audience along much like he pulls his posse with him: potentially a little unwillingly surrounded by the elderly and polka music. Schwartzman’s transformation as the scenes tick along is hilarious, and you can’t help but root for the vain but well-meaning Marla. Unfortunately, Jan’s son David (Robert Capron) doesn’t have enough to do, but is the emotional hinge of the movie. The lesser band members are constantly in the background, but little about them is mentioned or explained. Vanessa Bayer (Saturday Night Live) is in a good bit of this movie as a dancing bear, but the only details we learn is that she stirs the pot, isn’t well liked, and wants to have sex with one of the married members of the band. There isn’t much context given, and although it seems like that would be ridiculous enough to be funny, the jokes need a little more background for them to hit consistently.
By no means is this movie an unenjoyable watch. Netflix is the perfect landing spot for it. Call it ridiculous, but low stakes is the kind of intellectual property that can suck up your entire night when the streaming service is at its best, and The Polka King fits the bill. The story is more than engaging, and the performances are solid. Does it matter how Jan’s name is pronounced? In his words, no, even he doesn’t know which way it is: Yahn or Jan. In a sense, the lack of stakes behind the man’s own name describes the lack of stakes you feel even though Levan is running a Ponzi scheme on a bunch of old people to try to make his family, friends, and even his awful mother-in-law happy.
There are more than a few funny moments: Mickey’s confession to what he wants his stage name to be is the best scene of the movie, and the moment has an impact on every action Schwartzman takes for the rest of the movie. The film parodies its “white-out” cast well in every scene they’re able to have a black person in—rural Pennsylvania isn’t depicted as any more diverse than it actually is, but luckily we get some JB Smoove time out of it, who, even in a restrained form, is a pleasant addition. It’s enjoyable to ride in the blue-white-and-red Jan Levan Band van.
That’s what The Polka King is: enjoyable. More enjoyable than listening to polka, and more enjoyable than David Lynch finds Philadelphia to be.
“I’ve said many, many, many unkind things about Philadelphia, and I meant every one,” the director once explained.
The Polka King makes the argument that he should at least try the surrounding towns, but the director won’t find much beyond a small town doing small things that somehow creates a likable Ponzi schemer.
Featured Image by Netflix