America loves to watch people stumble and fall flat on their faces. Films like I, Tonya and The Disaster Artist take these stories of hard-luck misfits and turn them into inspiring, thoughtful reflections on our own humanity. While Netflix’s The Polka King probably won’t be nominated for any stuffy Hollywood awards in 2018, it is a strong addition to the growing sub-genre of “highly stylized/fictionalized biopics.”
Synopsis: “Local Pennsylvania polka legend Jan Lewan develops a plan to get rich that shocks his fans and lands him in jail.”
What’s great about these kinds of films is that no one expects 100% accuracy from darkly comic “based on true events” type films. So what if the events of American Made didn’t happen exactly the way it played out in the movie – you want accuracy? Watch a documentary. You want to be entertained? Watch a biopic. The same goes for The Polka King. Of course everything that happens is rooted in real life, but just jazzed up a little for better storytelling. Real life is messy, fiction needs to be a little neater to fit into that 90 minute run time.
At first glance The Polka King looks like another Adam-Sandler-esque Zohan type flick that makes you embarrassed to scroll passed it on Netflix, but it actually is way less ridiculous than the trailer makes it seem. Jack Black’s accent is a little wacky at first, but it grows on you as you get to know more about Jan Lewan. Black brings an earnest, hard-working, good-natured vibe to Lewan that makes his downward spiral from Polka to Ponzi feel more relatable and organic. His affable demeanor is a far cry from the slick con men usually associated with these kinds of stories, in fact he actually seems like the kind of guy that DiCaprio’s Belfort would take advantage of in Wolf of Wall Street. The film portrays Lewan as a guy who just got in way over his head and just keeps digging himself a deeper and deeper hole as he goes along.
While giving his clarinet player (Jason Schwartzman) a pep talk, Lewan sums up his philosophy as being a believer. He believes something will happen and then makes it happen. This notion comes back again and again as Lewan goes to confession to ask for forgiveness with seemingly the genuine intent to actually do the right thing…eventually. So while he does become one of the biggest scam artists of the 90’s, there’s something about Black’s portrayal of him that makes you kind of go, “come on…, he’s a nice guy.” Directors Forbes and Wolodarsky go out of their way to showcase the idea that Lewan truly is a believer who wants to do right by those around him, but gets tempted into taking on more than he can handle. They bring him to that precipice of moral crisis where he can do the right thing and admit his wrongdoing, but then someone else comes along looking to invest even more money. Vicariously, the audience understands the dilemma. It’s the classic gambler’s fallacy – “well, okay, I’m in a bad way now and I could just give up and take the loss, but if I just had one more chance and another $10K I can dig myself out of this hole and pay all these nice people back!” The delusion is very real, but also very relatable.
Jenny Slate as Marla Lewan was a sheer joy to see in this one and added a lot the story. Normally in these kinds of films, the wife is just the wife with very little to do other than look worried. With Slate’s Marla, we actually get to see a fully realized character play a pivotal role in the movie. Marla begins to lose her own identity amidst the whirlwind success of her husband. She doesn’t just want to be Mrs. Jan Lewan, she wants to have her own goals and dreams – to darkly comedic ends, of course. Marla’s controversial beauty pageant experience is not dissimilar from the I, Tonya story and could have been a film unto itself, but that could be personal bias talking as any excuse to see more of Jenny Slate being hilarious is definitely a good thing.
Then there’s Barb, portrayed by Jackie Weaver (The Disaster Artist, Silver Linings Playbook) who absolutely hates Jan – even before he initiates the Ponzi scheme. For some reason, she’s taken an irrational dislike to him and thinks he’s not good enough for her daughter. Throughout the film its difficult to really understand the basis for her fear/hatred. Similar to Allison Janney’s Lavona Golden, Barb finds it much easier to express hatred and vitriol than anything even close to love or support. It speaks volumes about Weaver’s ability that even while Lewan is ripping people off for millions, we as the audience still hate Barb more just for being such a negative person. Though – her redemptive moment is awesome and Black’s reaction to hearing about her throwing groceries at one of his victim’s car was surprisingly heart-warming.
Check out The Polka King on Netflix now if you’re in the mood for a more upbeat, wholesome version of Wolf of Wall Street then definitely add it to your queue and let us know what you thought on Twitter @Official_FAN