“Pennsylvania” and “Polka” can never be mentioned in the same sentence again.
Jan Lewan (Jack Black) was a legend among the Pennsylvania polka community. He was charming, fun, talented, and most of all, a great guy with large crowds. However, he and his wife, Marla (Jenny Slate), knew that they wanted a little more out of life and it was up to Jan to come up with the grand idea: Fleece his audience out of their savings, so that they could invest in his band. Of course, they would see returns, but over time and because his fans were so in love with him and his persona, they trusted him for all that they were with. And for awhile, Jan’s life was looking pretty great; lovely wife, solid savings, a Grammy nomination, and hell, he even got to meet the Pope. But as expected, it all came crashing down when people were wondering just where there money was, what it was going towards, and when they were all going to get it back.
And clearly, Jan couldn’t come up with a clear answer.
The Polka King is one of those typical tales that seem all too crazy and weird to be real, but the fact is that it is and there’s a documentary about it. I haven’t seen it and after time, I’m pretty sure I’ll get to it, but as for right now, the Polka King remains the top information-piece about Jan Lewan, the Pennsylvania Polka King. And the reason why the movie works as well as it does is because of Lewan himself, his tale, and just how bizarre his tale truly got.
In fact, a lot of movies with similar subjects get by on this point alone and it’s why the Polka King, for so long, is entertaining. It can be funny, but in a dark way where you know all of the fun times are all going to come crashing down and people will be sad by the end. There’s a certain tragedy behind the Polka King that co-directors Wallace Wolodarsky and Maya Forbes tap into, but only ever so slightly. Mostly, they keep an arms-length from allowing this material to get either too dark, or too light.
It’s somewhere slap-dab in the middle and it can sometimes feel like it’s keeping the material from truly reaching the heights that it should.
That said, it’s mostly dependent on Jack Black’s performance as Lewan, another wild and colorful character that Black’s perfect at channeling into. While his Polish-accent may, at times, sound faulty, it works because it makes this character who seems so manipulated and constructed, feel exactly like a caricature of what his screen-presence is; we know that he’s not as lovely and as nice as he lets himself come across as. It’s why Black’s performance is the main reason why the Polka King works as well as it does: There’s something deeper, darker, and much more sinister in there. It hardly ever comes out, but the slightest hints we get of it, are worth watching.
Same goes for the rest of the cast, especially Jenny Slate as Jan’s wife, Marla, who feels like she’s darker than she is portrayed, too. But we get brief instances of her trying to distance herself from being in her husband’s shadow and it promises a much more different, much more interesting movie. It never comes together, but it promises at so much more.
Much like the Polka King itself. But hey, at least it’s entertaining.
Consensus: Though it never gets as deep and as dark as it should, the Polka King benefits from a light and entertaining look at someone who’s much meaner and sinister than is let on, played to perfection by an impressive Jack Black.
6.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Netflix