By George Ruskin, First Year, French & German
The Netflix film is a joyful dramatisation by director Maya Forbes of the story of Jan Lewandowski, who swindled millions of dollars from investors to fund his lavish musical career, bringing the traditional Eastern European dance genre ‘polka’ to high profile audiences.
Jack Black’s return as the Polish Artful Dodger of Pennsylvania, Jan Lewandowski, is heartwarmingly wacko. The Polka King proves that ‘true event’ films don’t have to be dry, politically-motivated, three hour biopics.
Films featuring Black are the Ronseal of Hollywood. They do exactly what they say on the tin. He just about staggers through an hour and a half of loose plot, amateurish choreography, and jarring cameo. Although this is both evident and enjoyable in The Polka King, it feels like a departure from the usual fodder of School of Rock (2003) or Nacho Libre (2006) - he appears three-dimensional.
Black is the perfect casting for the role of Jan Lewan, a rotund, beaming, brash Polish polka singer tripping the Pennsylvanian light-fantastic. Lewan is the embodiment of the American Dream: enterprising bordering on illegal; energetic bordering on maniacal; patriotic bordering on clichéd.
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It is impossible not to fall in love with the guileful Lewan and his garish lifestyle. He is married to Marla (Jenny Slate), a parochial, all-American, one-time beauty queen. The family are shacked up with his mother-in-law, Barb (Jacki Weaver), who is a paradigm of greed-is-good, Reaganite America. An immigrant from Poland, Lewan is obsessed with his adopted home - we dwell slightly too long upon the band’s performance of ‘To Be an American’. Lewan is eager to please and titillate his geriatric fans who are all too eager to invest thousands of dollars in his Ponzi scheme.
Black by no means run rings around the cast, he is well supported. Jason Schwartzman shines as Lewan’s sweaty multi-instrumentalist-come-confidant, Micky Pizzazz. The aforementioned barnstorming performances by Slate and Weaver are also of much merit. I love Slate’s surly attitude, forced to introduce her husband at events varying from nursing homes to a cancer telethon. She brilliantly plays the provincial diva, perennially having ideas above her station - she enters the Mrs Pennsylvania competition to side-splitting results.
On the other hand, the jaded Weaver’s sour face and intuitive mistrust of her bafoonesque son-in-law creates a tense atmosphere in the home scenes that even Lewan struggles to lighten. It is through this crackling, interpersonal chemistry that Black truly shines. Whether pounding the Roman pavements or exercising in the jail yard, Black’s presence is infectious. The sour faces of those around him further embellish the blithe personality of our fraudster hero.
Photo courtesy of Netflix
The direction of Maya Forbes is equally optimistic. We enjoy an intoxicating soundtrack of ‘80s polka, and a succession of brightly-hued scenes. In places, it takes on an almost musical quality. You are never far from a toe-tapping polka track - there are 47 in total - which does seem incongruous with the fact that it essentially presents a crook defrauding nearly $5 million. This is exactly the point.
Forbes ensures that the Lewan’s cheery veneer cracks only rarely. Even Lewan’s demise is portrayed in the cheeriest of terms, his arrest and incarceration are painted as frolicsome catharsis. He remains sanguine after his cell stabbing and divorce, somewhat at the expense of character development.
A survivor, he rides out the escalating crises such as collecting and maintaining the sham investments from his elderly superfans, blagging an audience with Pope John Paul II, and the small matter of an ongoing fraud investigation. Like Icarus, powered by the success of provincial polka and a Grammy nomination, Lewan soars too close to the sun, but his ‘fake it till you make it’ mentality overcomes all.
Photo courtesy of Netflix
Over the closing scene of the film - a paired scene with the opening credits that slowly pans up from the tiled floor outside the house to an airplane in the sky - there is a dedication which reads: ‘For Zibo’. One assumes Zibo was a similar figure in Cuarón’s childhood and the personal importance of the film is communicated with both heartfelt care and filmmaking precision.
He is an endearing protagonist, and I rooted for our charismatic swindler. The ending is equally optimistic, and this makes me feel for those who fell victim to his scheme in real life. Their fraudster has been immortalised in a positive light – the real life Jan Lewan appeared at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 at the film’s premiere.
The Polka King is not for academic analysis; it is as brash as the star-spangled banner. Therefore, we forgive the frequent, clunky ‘five years later’ cues, the plot holes and inconsistent character development. These don’t matter because it is simply a romp. It has the characteristics of a ‘you couldn’t make it up’ true story, fabulously and succinctly executed by Forbes.
It is informative, and I spent the film scoffing at what I presumed to be copious dramatic license, yet during the credits, I was proved utterly wrong. There is a smorgasbord of photos of Lewan pictured with the Pope, a debonair Donald Trump, George Bush and other members of the 1980s glitterati. Having seen the real Jan Lewandowski, I wonder whether Black could have taken the role to more hyperbolic levels. This film puts a smile on your face like only Jack Black can, and a generous-helping of oom-pah is de rigueur.
Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Netflix
Have you caught The Polka-King yet?