Monday, 29 January 2018

The Polka King (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Polish-born Jan Lewan (Jack Black) is a polka bandleader with quite the following in his home of Pennsylvania. In fact, his fans believe in him so much that they are willing to invest thousands of dollars into his numerous business, not the least of which being his music. However, it seems that his business dealings aren’t entirely on the up-and-up, as he soon finds himself under investigation for financial fraud. Will Jan have to face his actions or will he go on to take the stage once again?

The supporting cast here is very solid. Jenny Slate fills out her role as the dutiful wife with the right amount of charm and chemistry, but she also does quite well at showing how the fame surrounding her and her husband are affecting her, like her sudden on-stage rant about how it feels to be Mrs. Jan Lewan. Jason Schwartzman as Jan’s right-hand man rolls with the dramatic punches he’s given, and even if he comes across as a little too easy to convince one way or another, he certainly makes his stage name of Mickey Pizzazz feel warranted.

Jacki Weaver is an absolute riot as Marla’s constantly pessimistic mother, channelling so much shrillness into the role that not only does she make the idea of siding with an admitted criminal rather easy, but she never makes it seem like she exists solely as a roadblock everyone else has to get around. She is voicing very real concerns, albeit in a very confrontational manner, and seeing her be the rather emphatic voice of reason results in quite a few chuckles. Robert Capron as Jan and Marla’s son David makes for some nice exchanges with Jack Black, J. B. Smoove as a government agent investigating Jan’s finances works well as a look at the more legal side of the story, and Vanessa Bayer as the polka band’s resident bear leaves a far greater impression that I would have guessed just from that character description.

And then there’s Jack Black in the lead role, and it’s here where pretty much ALL of the reasons to watch this movie reside. His history in musical comedy off the back of his work with Tenacious D serves him well here as he imbues the character with a seriously infectious energy that makes the performance scenes really pop. However, that is only part of the puzzle; as good as the music is, combining the real Jan Lewan’s own arrangements with some pretty solid compositions from Theodore Shapiro, it’s his character performance that makes it work as well as it does here.

Following in the footsteps of films like Masterminds, which took a similarly comedic look at a real-life crime story, the way he manages to get the audience on his side right from the start and even keep them there is quite admirable. He conveys so much dimension within the role, giving real weight to his discussions about how much the work means to him and how this great land he lives in gave him an opportunity to make his mark. He comes across less like a malicious crook who just wanted to fleece elderly couples for their savings and more like an ambitious worker who got in way over his head. Kind of hard not to feel sorry for him, as deserving of his sentence as he is.

This is aided by the solid script at the heart of all this, which is rather surprising considering last time we checked in with husband-and-wife screenwriting team Wallace Wolodarsky and Maya Forbes (the latter of whom is also the director), we got the impossibly saccharine A Dog’s Purpose. Not to say that this film doesn’t get overly sentimental at times, since that is basically the entire tone of the piece where it concerns the title character, but here, it feels warranted. Partly because of Jack Black’s brilliant performance, but also because these writers had enough sense to look into Jan’s own ambitions and try to get at the core of what made them manifest.

This is where we get into discussions about the American Dream, and for a nice change of pace, this film actually does it in a way that interests me. It takes Jan’s place as a European migrant and uses that as the hook for the American Dream to enter the picture, highlighting how while that very dream tends to leave most people cold, it still draws people in… and not just the locals. Hell, over here in Australia, I got taught rigorously about the Dream in high school and was explicitly told not to believe it. Given how much Jan finds himself swept up in the frenzy of fame in this film, I’m starting to realise why exactly that lesson was taught in the first place.

So, what about the true crime aspect of the story? I mean ‘The Man Who Would Be Polka King’, the documentary this film is based on, is incredibly dry, so maybe this dramatisation can give a pathos shot in the arm to the story. Well, it kinda does, in that largely skims over the hard numbers involved. We get the sense that everything isn’t on the up and up, but at the same time, we’re not bogged down in economic jargon to try and explain why what he is doing is wrong. It works out fairly well, since it means that we get more time dedicated to the reactions Jan Lewan gives of what he is doing and his fears of getting caught, but it also means that this ends up downplaying the fact that Jan Lewan pulled a fast one on his investors.

It even reaches a point where the film takes time out to berate the people who fell for the scheme, since it’s not as if Jan twisted their arms to invest to begin with. Granted, this comes as a result of a rather grim bit of misanthropy connected to an injury Jan got while in prison (an injury that actually helped in the real story), but at the same time, this film ends up struggling with its own moral grey areas. Stories based on true crimes end up highlighting the perpetrator over the victims, but at least, it’s usually done with the notion the perpetrator is most definitely in the wrong and the victims were indeed victims. Here, between the sympathy shown towards Jack Black as Jan and the way the details are handled, this ends up going down a less-than-ideal route, and the film ends up suffering… well, not by much, but it does result in a rather flawed production.

All in all, this is a pretty entertaining, if incredibly light, feature. The acting is excellent, with Jack Black absolutely shining as our weirdly complex and likeable lead, the music is catchy and used within the narrative quite nicely, and while the writing may shy away from the hard facts of the story a little too much to be completely on-side, it still shows enough understanding of the effects of fame and chasing dreams to make Jan Lewan out to more a tragic figure than an outright villain. Not so sure if his real-life investors would agree with that assertion, but for what it’s worth, it was a fun ride.

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