The Polka King, which is now available to stream on Netflix, easily could have been a condescending film; based on a 2009 documentary called The Man Who Would Be Polka King, it tells the story of Jan Lewan, a Polish-born, Pennsylvania-based polka singer and entrepreneur who, in the 1990s, embroiled his fans in a Ponzi scheme and raised nearly $5 million. Lewan’s music is tacky and the outfits he performs in even tackier; that he used the stolen money to fuel his career seems more pathetic than devious. Yet because the film is directed by Maya Forbes—whose autobiographical drama Infinitely Polar Bear (2014) is one of the most affecting movies I’ve seen about mental illness—and stars Jack Black—an imaginative comic performer who often suggests a live-action cartoon—The Polka King is warm and sympathetic, avoiding easy jokes in favor of humane, character-driven humor.
Jan is no simple con man, but a loving father and boss who wants to do well by the people in his life, and his conflicting motives make the film complex. The Polka King establishes right away that Jan is beloved by his wife, his band, and the fans who attend his concerts: a born showman, he delights in making people happy. Forbes (who wrote the script with Wallace Wolodarsky) scores some laughs off Jan’s vanity over his petty success, though the comedy is gentle. Jan’s good nature shines through his ego, just as his wife Marla (Jenny Slate) compensates for her lifelong obsession with having won a local beauty pageant as a teenager with her plucky attitude. Both characters believe that good things will come to them if they work and believe hard enough, and the film lampoons their blind faith in success while inviting viewers to share in their dreams. (In this regard, The Polka King recalls Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard.)
For a while the characters’ dreams do come true. Jan’s (mostly elderly) fans start investing their money in his shady scheme to grow a financial empire, and Jan uses the money to be the magnanimous high roller he always wanted to be. He pays the members of his orchestra a living wage, buys fancy gifts for Marla, and donates generously to the local cancer telethon. The SEC sees through Jan’s plot right away, yet the investigator it sends to look into him (JB Smoove) takes a shine to Jan and halts his investigation. Jan’s mother-in-law (Jacki Weaver) is also suspicious of him, but her warnings to Marla that Jan might be up to no good fall on deaf ears. She’s too busy living her modest dreams to question how she achieved them.
The Polka King’s satire feels a little stale after The Wolf of Wall Street and Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, two recent (and more aggressive) comedies about the corruption of the American Dream. Yet it’s clear that satire is not what Forbes is after. She likes her characters too much to present them as inherently corrupt; at worst, they come off as misguided and naive. Jan really believes that he can pay back his investors—a sign of goodwill as well as naivete—and in his dumb optimism, he seems as much of a victim of the get-rich-quick mentality as the people who come to him. Black’s winning performance renders Jan understandable if never quite relatable: the character is a bit larger than life, especially during the musical numbers, which showcase the actor’s surprising facility with singing polka tunes.
In its cheery attitude and frequent song breaks, The Polka King feels at times like a musical. Adding to this feeling is the “let’s put on a show” spirit embodied by most of the cast. Jason Schwartzman is a delight as Jan’s clarinetist and right-hand man Michael Stutz who dreams of performing under the name of Mickey Pizzazz, but Weaver gives the film’s standout supporting performance. Hamming it up under a curly wig and giant prop glasses, Weaver grounds her caricature of a mother-in-law in a recognizable, lower-middle-class feistiness. This acknowledgement of class-bound experience mirrors Forbes’s—at its best, the film conveys a sense of financial desperation that throws Jan’s dreams of stardom into sharp relief.