There are few actors who you can guarantee will give everything to every role they touch. One of those actors is none other than Jack Black, an actor who seems to be filled with a boundless energy. Black’s career has had its ebbs and flows. Highs like “Bernie” or “School of Rock” have shown his commitment to excellence or the characters he plays. Other times, he is undercut by films like “Gulliver’s Travels” or “The Big Year,” both of which underperformed. However, when Black chooses a project that fits his style, there’s no doubt that he can take over a film. “The Polka King” is undeniably one of those instances, with Black expertly taking over the film.
“The Polka King” follows the exploits of Polka musician Jan Lewan (Black). Lewan was a Grammy-nominated artist for Polka album of the year. However, after he is accused of bribing officials during the Mrs. Pennsylvania competition, it’s revealed that Lewan is a con man. The movie begins with Lewan struggling to keep his Polka-orchestra going, with several members threatening to leave the group. Money becomes tight for Lewan and his family, including his wife Marla (Jenny Slate) and begins to worry about him. Meanwhile, his mother-in-law (Jacki Weaver) believes that Jan is a failure. Soon, Jan begins to ask elderly citizens of his town for “investments,” promising a 12% return on their investment. Soon, there are too many investors to pay back, and Jan starts to build a full-on Ponzi scheme.
Most of the charm from this film comes from the outlandish nature of the story. This owes a lot to the director, Maya Forbes, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Wallace Wolodarsky. The two are able to balance the absurdity of the situation in the writing and the editing. Forbes keeps the pace going through the film and keeps the proceedings down to a swift 90-minute run time. This gives the characters the ability to have complete arcs, which helps this feel like a story that needed to be told. However, there are many moments where time is devoted to characters who feel fairly one note.
The two characters that feel fully fleshed out are Black’s Jan Lewan and Weaver’s Barb. Black might be giving one of the stronger performances of his career while remaining in character. Jan is a bit of an absurdist person, and given that the film is based on a true story, Black pushes up to the edge of believability without going over the edge. The real MVP of the film is Weaver, who absolutely blows up the screen and take over the movie. Weaver is dynamite as a wildcard in the film. She is allowed to be an over-the-top antagonist for Jan, while actually be right about his true nature. This might be Weaver’s best performance since “Stoker” and possibly since “Animal Kingdom.”
Jenny Slate also adds some depth to her character. The role is fairly thankless on paper. She’s a fairly oblivious character, who never realizes there is anything wrong with her husband. In fairness to her, Jan pulls off some crazy feats, including meeting The Pope and getting her into the Mrs. Pennsylvania beauty pageants. That said, she doesn’t really get a chance to grab power or command agency, which makes her feel more like an observer in her own life tragedy. Slate does her best to add levels and is able to make the character feel like there’s more here than there should be.
On the other hand, several characters feel too one dimensional for the film to truly be great. The two actors who get the short end of the stick are Jason Schwartzman and J.B. Smoove. Both are underdeveloped, both try to take on the “moral center” role in the film, and neither really draws your attention. Smoove simply doesn’t have enough scenes. Schwartzman feels like he’s playing variation #3 of Max Fischer. Simply put, neither is given a real opportunity to showcase their talents.
Finally, despite the weirdness that could have accompanied a film based on a Ponzi-scheme driven by a Polka artist, the crafts feel fairly commonplace. Any movie about Polka should have strong costume work, and Susan Lyall delivers. Whether designing low-budget bear costumes, Mrs. Pennsylvania outfits, or Black’s litany of insane outfits, Lyall shows impressive range. The cinematography is surprising in moments as well, especially when aging the material. Other than that, those aspects, the rest of the film feel pedestrian when it comes to the techs.
Overall, the “The Polka King” is a well-intentioned, fun film. It’s not going to get anywhere near awards next year, but its well worth your time as a fun film. Come for Weaver and Black, and you’ll find yourself having a great time. This is a starring vehicle for Black more than anything else, and hopefully, he continues to get these quirky roles. If nothing else, there are some great, if not small, moments that will make you happy you took the journey.