How much you enjoy The Polka King will hinge almost entirely on how much you enjoy Jack Black. For me, that's quite a bit. I've sat through the likes of Envy and Year One thanks to my devoted love for the bombastic comic actor, and would happily check out even more pessimistic titles were he cast at the head. Don’t fret—even for those who don’t share my affection for its star, The Polka King is hardly one of the worst movies he's ever made. That said, it's also not one of the best, relying on Black and a few likewise strong supporting players to elevate a script that, once out the gate, doesn’t seem to have any place to go.
A bit too confident in the value of its own "based on a true story" label, the Sundance Film Festival premiere The Polka King revels in what it the misadventures and misdeeds of polka bandleader Jan Lewan (Black), whose small-time Western Pennsylvania-based Ponzi scheme doesn’t play quite as gripping onscreen as it may have in real life. In truth, prevalence of polka-tunes aside, the story isn’t quite outrageous enough to rest so proudly on the laurels of its own kooky aura.
Jan himself is an interesting character: a workaholic family man endowed with the American dream and a damn near psychotic compulsion to keep everyone and everything in his life happy, pleasant, and optimistic. These characteristics, rather than greed, are what drive him to the desperate measure of conning the many local investors in his polka band into donating more and more money on increasingly grave false pretenses.
Terribly afraid of letting anyone down, Jan lies to everybody: his wife (Jenny Slate), who yearns for an identity beyond "Mrs. Jan Lewan"; his best friend and co-musician Mickey Pizzazz (Jason Schwartzman), a hapless schlub who fancies himself the schmoozer; and his mother-in-law (Jacki Weaver), who works grade A shtick as a snarling, vindictive nemesis to her daughter’s greatly resented husband.
Despite a delightfully silly performance by Weaver and fine (albeit much more downplayed) turns by Slate and Schwartzman, the movie is really Black’s alone. When onstage as showman Jan, Black frolics and flails as humorously as he ever has before; when writhing in pain under the weight of his desperation and conscience, Black’s convulsing brow and false smile are likewise worthy of hearty chuckles. The problem is that he’s asked to make the same material funny over and over for the run of the film, with only the occasional and subtle hike in stakes.
Unfair though it may be, it’s inevitable to compare The Polka King to Bernie, another Jack Black-starring region-specific comedic true story about a nice guy who did a pretty awful thing. Where Richard Linklater's 2011 picture succeeds is in the intrinsic weirdness of its tale and innovation of its telling; the principally straightforward The Polka King doesn't have the stylistic originality nor the inherent intrigue to keep it alive from start to finish. But it does have Jack Black, who, if you're like me, goes a very, very long way.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Images: Sundance Institute
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.