Based-on-a-true-story biopics tend to fall into one of two categories: gritty or glossy. Weirdly, Netflix’s latest original feature The Polka King can’t decide which one it wants to be. Drawing from the documentary film The Man Who Would Be Polka King, director Maya Forbes (Infinitely Polar Bear) and co-writer Wally Wolodarsky (A Dog’s Purpose) attempt to keep the focus of the film – Jan Lewan (Jack Black) – grounded in heart-breaking reality while offering up situational laughs that frequently don’t land. What should be a gripping tale of greed run amok or a comedic tale of one man’s ineptitude turns out to be nothing more than middle of the road due to the effort of keeping both the character of Lewan and the actor himself within the good graces of the audience which results in the film rarely attaining dramatic tension.
If you’re not familiar with the name Jan Lewan, you’re either not from Pennsylvania or too young to have heard of The Polka King. Lewan, an immigrant with dreams of American success, lead The Jan Lewan Orchestra, a well-known local polka band, at night and ran multiple side hustles during the day: operating a family-owned Polish knick-knack shop, creating his own brand of vodka, delivering pizzas for local restaurants, and serving as the band’s booking agent – all with a smile on his face. Nothing was beneath this man whose long-term goal was for all of his hard work to result in a bustling empire. Unfortunately, a can-do attitude isn’t enough to pay the bills and Lewan found himself at the center of a Ponzi scheme when he began selling unlicensed promissory notes to fans as a means of funding his burgeoning empire.
The advertising leads the viewer to infer that The Polka King is a comedy which unjustly describes both the story and the circumstances – neither of which make for a ridiculous or uproarious true story adventure. There are certainly some silly moments and the cast does generate some chuckles, however, there’s nothing funny about the story. Given the cast of comedic talent (Jenny Slate, Jacki Weaver, Jason Schwartzman, Willie Garson, and there-and-gone Vanessa Bayer), which is greatly underused, it makes sense to position the movie as a comedy, but the narrative wants to be a drama so badly that the vibes of each detract from the other. Lewan is presented as a genuinely caring man whose drive for self-realization compels him to take increasingly more dangerous risks. There’s a real sadness to The Polka King as Lewan finds himself in over his head, jumping from one scheme to another as a means of covering the previous escapade. He falsifies a business license, promises interest payments he can’t deliver, and even bribes his way into meeting Pope John Paul II. As things begin to escalate further, it’s easy to forget that Lewan is a real person who actually did these things, because it largely feels like Black’s playing a character. It’s in the few moments when we begin to see Lewan crack under the pressure that Black truly shines. He portrays a depth of humility and sadness most audiences aren’t used to seeing from Black’s largely comedic catalog. (Seriously, why doesn’t he get more straight roles like The Holiday or The Big Year?) Lewan’s choices are portrayed more as the personality flaws of a good man making poor decisions rather than as completely unethical choices of a flawed man making the inevitable fall from grace far less evocative than it could have been.
The Polka King chooses to glosses over many of the real newsworthy details and it’s a smart choice as it makes narrative sense to keep the pacing strong, the character development on track, and the focus on Lewan. Some might argue that skipping these details challenges the integrity of the story, but the documentary already provides the real goods as do many news stories (some of which are shown during the film). In the end, the movie The Polka King is much like the man himself, as it trades in pageantry for substance, resulting in a story far less engaging than it could be. If not for the fantastic ensemble cast, The Polka King would be far less engaging or worthy of discussion. Worth a view to take in the talent and as a gateway into learning about this extraordinary story (you’ll hardly believe is real) that you might have missed.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.