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Film Review: The Polka King

The Polka King (2017; Directed by Maya Forbes)

Jan Lewan deeply, passionately wanted his life story to fit the promised contours of the American Dream. In his boundless self-belief and positivity as well as in his massive, fundamentally fantastical fraudulence, the self-styled Polka King of Pennsylvania wound up embodying, in a kitschy, niche-y manner, the darker yet entirely inevitable flipside of that vaunted capitalist Dream. Immigrating from Poland and working menial jobs for years, Lewan pursued his passion for polka music (he was a classically-trained musician in Poland, attending Gdansk’s conservatory of music and playing in orchestras across Europe), touring with his band the Jan Lewan Orchestra for years around Pennsylvania, the U.S. and the world. He also opened a Polish gift shop in Hazleton, PA, ran European bus tours which included Papal audiences in the Vatican, and was nominated for a Grammy Award for one of his polka albums in 1995. Unfortunately, Lewan funded many of these enterprises with promisory note investments that he failed to pay back, and in 2004 he went to prison for fraud, having swindled upwards of 400 people out of millions of dollars in an illegal Ponzi scheme.

This is the tale of Jan Lewan told in the 2009 documentary feature The Man Who Would Be Polka King, whose directors Joshua Brown and John Mikulak emulated the shoddy local-level hucksterism of Lewan’s empire, either through their low budget, competence level, or by conscious artistic choice. That documentary is the basis for the narrative of Lewan’s career, personal life, and crimes in director Maya Forbes’ comedy The Polka King. Co-writted by Forbes and former Simpsons writer Wallace Wolodarsky (co-writer of “Last Exit to Springfield”, one of the greatest episodes of the show’s classic era), The Polka King begins with great promise in the inspired, spot-on casting of Jack Black as Lewan. Black is a comedic actor with musical ability and experience, very capable in roles requiring broad, wide-eyed, loopy positivity (little wonder that he has worked mostly in children’s films in recent years), but likewise able to summon an almost-hidden edge of guilty darkness that lurks beneath. All of this makes him a fine match for Lewan, the man with the sweaty stage presence of a low-rent, perogi-skinned Wayne Newton, the insistent smile of a middling but hard-labouring salesman, and a consistent but ultimately insufficient strain of nagging Catholic guilt at his mounting lies and crimes.

Lewan, at least in Black’s amplified comic interpretation, displayed an unlimited, magnanimous positivity that borders frequently on the unhinged. This made him an ideal personality to rise high in the world of polka music, with its favoured tone of aggressive cheerfulness that can push liberally into demented and even weirdly desperate territory. But it also rendered him an insidious and attractive con man, selling rosy but ultimately empty financial prospects to mostly older investors who were also fans of him as a performer. Black’s Lewan has bought wholesale into the grand promise of American capitalism, but until he almost-innocently backs into swindling his fans out of their savings (he is very specifically warned by a SEC agent played by J.C. Smoove that what he is doing is illegal, so he cannot ultimately claim innocence), he finds the accruing of capital to be frustratingly difficult, no matter his hustle and his positive outlook. He is nagged constantly by his mother-in-law Barb (Jacki Weaver) to start living in the real world and settle for steadier work, a criticism likewise levelled at her daughter and his wife, former (and, with Lewan’s underhanded aid, future) beauty queen Marla (Jenny Slate).

But it is Jan Lewan and not the humble, native-born Barb who is more attuned to the amoral mantra of the American capitalist dream: fake it until you make it, and don’t let making it stop you from faking it. Forbes’ comedy film plays it all quite light (maybe too light, to be frank), but there is a undertone here of corrupt institutions failing in their purported oversight duties that allow Lewan to run amok. The beginning of the end of Lewan’s paper-tiger polka empire is here characterized as being the scandal that erupts around his bribery of the judges in the Mrs. Pennsylvania beauty pageant, which allows Marla to win an undeserved crown. But why shouldn’t Lewan think bribery will work in a two-bit beauty pageant, when a suitcase full of money can get him and his Euro tour a private audience with Pope John Paul II? Smoove’s SEC man Ron Edwards looks away from Lewan after a single interview, and is only later persuaded to crack down on this figure that he found harmlessly clownish. Even Barb, Lewan’s most implacable critic, cannot help but verbally smack down a couple of his defrauded investors who relish the slashed throat he suffers at the hand of his prison cellmate (yes, the Polka King of Pennsylvania got shivved; you can’t make this shit up). They got screwed because they got greedy.

Any sort of semi-serious critique contained in The Polka King is fairly rote, however, as is much of the humour here, to be honest. Black labours hard to make everything work, but most of the amusement is derived from the (admittedly very strange) nature of polka culture and from Lewan’s English misspeakings (“the invests”, he calls his promisory notes scam, for example). Lewan’s right-hand man in the orchestra and star clarinet player, Mickey Pizzazz (Jason Schwartzman), is pinballed left, right, and centre by the script, which can never quite decide what his role should be in relation to Lewan: foil, sidekick, antagonist, or humanizing influence? This is a man whose most deeply-held ambition in life is to have “Pizzazz” in his polka-band stage name; he should be hilarious, but is just sort of shiftless. A scene in which Black and Schwartzman sneak the suitcase of money through to the streets of Rome to bribe the Vatican is only the most egregious of many that consider themselves far funnier than they are.

It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that a straight-to-Netflix comedy about a Polish-American polka musician starring Jack Black isn’t terribly funny. It has its moments (a local host introduces the Jan Lewan Orchestra for their first televised appearance as having “blazed quite a trail through the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton area”; the closing, nearly-impossible-to-believe “Rappin’ Polka”), but it should be acknowledged that expectations ought to have been not so much tempered as placed on life support. But the details of the Jan Lewan story are just so outrageously, eccentrically weird and specific (he rigged a beauty pageant, bribed the Pope, and was shivved in prison!), and its wider applicability to American society, culture, economics, and even politics (Jan Lewan as a mega-low-rent Donald Trump without the Teflon patina of privilege?) so potentially compelling, that it has to be classed as a disappointment that the final film telling that story is not better. Although perhaps its middling form might be a better match for Jan Lewan’s shoddy house-of-cards take on the American Dream, after all.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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