THE POLKA KING

Here we go again. Another film “based on a true story”, but this time it’s not a drama, or some political thriller. It’s a goofball comedy. Comedies based off true stories don’t often work for me, as the comedy is often way too over the top and unrealistic, straining the credibility. Plus, when you sometimes deal with such heavy and serious themes, the comedy can get lost in the pessimistic real world. Are Ponzi schemes that rip off old people funny? Well, it can be in the hands of the right filmmakers and cast. 

The Polka King follows Polish immigrant Jan Lewan (Jack Black), souvenir shop owner and struggling family man by day, and polka band leader by night. When the lead clarinetist Mickey (Jason Schwartzman) threatens to quit the band, Jan offers him and his other bandmates more money for them to stay on. Money that he doesn’t really have. Fortunately for him, a sweet elderly couple offers to make an investment into Jan’s polka band, with Jan guaranteeing a 12% annual return. As Jan’s gains more investors and his band grows even more popular, he realizes that he may not be able to provide his supporters a return on their investment. 

I actually like Jack Black quite a bit. He’s a very charismatic and talented man who always gives it his all when performing. Yeah, like any other zany comedy actor, he doesn’t always pick the best project, but he’s usually the highlight in the lower quality ones. He’s just a fun guy to watch, and his enthusiastic performance as Jan Lewan really held the movie together. He gets to dance, sing, and talk with an accent, clearly enjoying himself in the role. Jason Schwartzman, Jenny Slate, and Jackie Weaver as Jan’s respective band partner, wife, and mother-in-law are also great, imbuing their characters with a lot of personality. They’re all various types of straight men for Jan’s buffoonery, and them countering his persistent ignorance and arrogance makes for some amusing scenes. 

Since this is based off Jan Lewan’s true story of running what was basically a polka Ponzi scheme, you would think that’s what most of the film would be about. It mostly takes a backseat to Jack Black clowning around, performing shows, and an uninteresting subplot involving his wife and a beauty pageant. J.B. Smoove as a federal investigator is introduced in the first act to investigate Jan’s scheme, then disappears for the rest of the film until the final act. I totally forgot his character existed in the middle of the film, and never felt the stakes were high for Jan. There are occasional moments where he realizes the trouble he’s in for, but the filmmakers never take it too seriously. I know it’s a comedy film, but the most memorable comedies aren’t just hilarious, but also have great stories and characters. 

Most true story films exaggerate things to make them more exciting, and they do the opposite here, which I actually kind of respect. However, it falls into the true story trap of needing to give us the necessary information, which makes the film oddly structured. The film covers a decade of Jan’s career, sometimes making huge time jumps. After jumping around and giving us the full story, it kind of just stops, giving us the rest of the information with your typical “this character went on to do this,” title cards. Sometimes it moves so fast, some scenes don’t get enough room to breathe, which would have made it funnier overall. 

Aside from the oversaturated and flatly lit cinematography that plagues so many films nowadays, it reminded me a lot of one of those many forgettable comedy films from the early to mid-2000’s. It’s simple, brisk, and occasionally funny, but director and co-writer Maya Forbes doesn’t do anything creative with his larger than life character. The story surrounding Jan and his polka empire is an interesting one, and in some more assured hands, The Polka King could have been even more interesting and funnier. If you like Jack Black clowning around, though, it’s not a terrible way to spend 90 minutes. 

5.5/10

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