Now is the winter of our Jack Black content: First Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a wind-down from the year-end awards contender rush, and now Maya Forbes’ The Polka King, a screwball biopic based on the 2009 Jan Lewan documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King. If Lewan’s name doesn’t call to mind a blaring chorus of accordions and trumpets, a primer: Lewan went to prison in the early 2000s for orchestrating a Ponzi scheme around his Pennsylvania-based polka band and through his various subsidiary business ventures, defrauding elderly patrons of his music to the tune of millions of dollars. And if Black’s involvement in the project strikes you as unexpected, then a primer on Richard Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie is in order, too.
Like The Polka King, Bernie is a true-crime story structured as a comedy, where Black cuts a charming, whimsical figure playing Bernie Tiede, a Texan mortician who received a life sentence in 1999 for gunning down his widowed octogenarian millionaire lady friend. (In fairness to Tiede, she wasn’t a nice person.) Whether or not you find humor in the murder of an old lady, even a very mean old lady, will determine how you respond to the Linklater movie. By contrast The Polka King is made accessible by its accidental timeliness, being the saga of a relentless, bloviating self-promoter with too many businesses to his name who succeeds in each of them by cheating every system put before him.
As far as post-2016 election movies go, though, The Polka King works precisely because it isn’t about politics whatsoever. Instead, Maya Forbes has crafted a zippy comedy about a charismatic charlatan and the disastrous impact his fakery has on the rubes gullible enough to fall for his schtick. As such, The Polka King is a superb American movie that takes direct aim at long-held myths of American life. As long as Forbes remains in that mode, it’s hard not to connect the dots between her subject’s past and our present. If there’s an element of prescience at play here, there are also telltale signs of great filmmaking, because great films find ways of taking the pulse of eras other than their own without trying.
Forbes starts us off with a title card assuring her audience of the film’s veracity: “This really happened,” it reads. “In Pennsylvania.” From there we slide right into 1990, with Black on stage singing “Ole Ole” accompanied by his band, which includes a handful of brass instruments, a man dancing in a chicken suit, and his best friend Mickey (Jason Schwartzman) tooting away on his clarinet. The performance is followed by expositional dialogue between Jan and one of his dupes-to-be, where he recounts his life story in brief while praising America as the land of opportunity. It’s the vehicle by which Forbes places a spotlight on the American dream, at once a convenient justification for screwing innocent people on your climb to the top of the ladder and also an excuse for your personal shortcomings.
The film suggests that the American dream isn’t about becoming somebody when you’re nobody. It’s about validating your unshakeable belief that you were never “nobody,” that you’ve been “somebody” the whole time. It isn’t your fault that the world didn’t recognize your somebody-ness; it’s the world’s fault for not paying attention. Forbes doesn’t use this harsh truth to punish her characters, but she does hold it at the center of the film’s punchlines. Lewan, presented as unfailingly earnest by Black, ostensibly never stops believing in himself, but really he never stops holding onto the superficial entitlements promised by the American dream. Even when Black shows us Lewan’s fear of imminent failure, he doggedly hangs onto the idealism of his surrogate homeland.
So does Marla, Lewan’s wife, played by the great Jenny Slate as a planet caught in her husband’s orbit. Lewan is the center of their solar system. When Marla forcibly confronts her place in that system, she has an on-stage meltdown and eventually demands, rightly so, an enterprise of her own. We get the sense that Forbes feels terrible for Marla, another victim of Lewan’s schemes. Surprisingly, we get the sense that she feels bad for Lewan, too. He’s a huckster, but if we believe Black’s interpretation of the man, he’s a huckster who genuinely thinks he can make everyone happy using hucksterism as his medium: Marla, Mickey, his fans and maybe even his caustic mother in law, Barb (Jacki Weaver), whose determined suspicion against Lewan turns her into the heavy of the piece, no matter that her suspicion is well-placed. She’s a vulgar avenging angel, chastising sinners dumb enough and greedy enough to hand their money over to a snake oil salesman.
Barb’s repeated attacks on Lewan burn holes through The Polka King’s American dream. In America, we’ll take the dream over reality any day of the week. Forbes gets that, and she gets that action against the dream is social treason. (The conflict unravels in a hospital scene that pivots on delightfully unhinged work by Black.) Her film is spry, frequently hilarious, and at its very best dark-verging-on-deranged. It’s also unexpectedly gentle. Barb judges. Forbes doesn’t. Maybe she cares more about America than her narrative lets on. How could she not? “I have America up the wazoo,” Lewan exclaims to Mickey a third of the way into the film. Forbes’ film does, too.
Director: Maya Forbes
Writer: Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky
Starring: Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jacki Weaver, Jason Schwartzman, J.B. Smoove
Release Date: January 12, 2018
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.