Jan Lewan is a Polish immigrant who became a local celebrity in small town Pennsylvania, fronting a polka band, and pulling in investors for his seemingly booming “polka empire.” Once it came out that his confidence and charm was all a front for a multi-million-dollar Ponzi scheme, Lewan became reviled, and the most unlikely resident in a cellblock of dangerous convicts. Now, the charismatic ex-con gets a second chance to rebrand with Netflix’s quirky comedy/true-crime biopic The Polka King.
Based on the documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King, The Polka King is shockingly true to life, revealing the stranger-than-fiction stories of fleecing fans, rigged beauty contests, and curious audiences with the pope. Married screenwriters and co-directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky* even pull dialogue from the mouths of the people who lived it, making the doc and its narrative sister film a fantastic DIY double-feature. But above all else, it’s Jack Black who makes this movie work, as well as willfully disturbing.
With his boundless energy and unflappable charm, Black is perfectly cast as Jan. He channels the showmanship honed from years fronting Tenacious D into a jaunty string of polka numbers, and all his charisma into this warm-hearted yet duplicitous criminal. Whether he’s fawning over Jan’s beauty queen wife (Jenny Slate), coaching a bandmate to confidence, or swinging his hips alongside the polka band’s “dancing bear” (Vanessa Bayer), Black is mesmerizing, charming, and sprightly entertaining. As retirees and fans pour their life savings into Jan’s scheme, you may well cringe in revulsion. But you also understand why his victims fell for this. Because even as you watch him swindle and lie, you can’t help but like Jan. Forbes and Wolodarsky nudge their audience into an uncomfortable position of rooting for a criminal, while recognizing just how bad his crimes were.
In this sense, The King of Polka plays as a solid sister-film to Richard Linklater’s Bernie, which also starred Jack Black as a beloved local figure turned notorious criminal. Both biopics offer you a frolic through a bizarre true crime story, and then leave you amused but also unnerved, because they offer a protagonist who is both good guy and bad guy. Bernie killed a woman, but he used her money to help his neighbors and town. Jan lied and swindled, but he believed he could pay it all back (and still does). It doesn’t make what they did okay, and yet—if we’re honest with ourselves—we kind of want it to. We like to break the world up into good and bad people, but both Bernie and The Polka King remind us that’s not always so simple. When the The Polka King ends with this resilient rogue crowing about a second chance, we root for him, yet worry that chance might do more ill than good.
Aside from this satisfying moral mire, The Polka King offers brilliant comedic performances from a celebrated supporting cast. Jason Schwartzman delights and sweats through suit jackets as Jan’s neurotic bandmate, Mickey Pizzazz. Jacki Weaver thrills as a mother-in-law from hell, who serves as Jan’s grudging adversary. Vanessa Bayer is a hoot as the oversexed Bitsy Bear. But best of all, Black meets his match with Jenny Slate as Marla Lewan.
The pair share an easy onscreen chemistry that swiftly sells that the Lewans’s is a marriage of love and mutual adoration. In beauty pageants and dry cleaner shops, Slate works in the heightened physicality and sharp looks that made her a favorite on The Kroll Show and Parks and Recs. She manages to make Marla both hilarious and familiar. Slate masterfully carves out the arc of a woman who fears she peaked in high school, and is desperate to get back her sense of self, even in the shadow of her supportive husband.
Forbes’ directorial debut Infinitely Polar Bear showed this filmmaker’s skill for telling complicated family stories with humor and humanity. In The Polka King, she and her husband maintain that standard, but amp up the lunacy, star power, and energy to create something not only sensationally fun, but also enticingly thought-provoking.
The Polka King and The Man Who Would Be Polka King are both on Netflix.
*Note: the DGA and the film’s end credits put Forbes as the sole director. However, in an interview following the film’s Sundance premiere, the couple insisted they are co-directors on The Polka King.