One of those conspicuously talented comics who nonetheless can be tricky to cast, Jack Black has rather surprisingly found some of his best big-screen roles portraying liberally dramatized versions of real people, à la “School of Rock” and “Bernie.” (No, “Drunk History” doesn’t count.) Featuring Black’s most eccentric true-life character yet, “The Polka King” amply plays to its star’s strengths, yielding a hilariously tough-to-believe biopic that should easily prove one of the bigger commercial breakouts of Sundance’s 2017 edition.
Co-directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky’s affectionately farcical comedy is based on a loopy 2009 documentary about Jan Lewan, a colorful Polish émigré-turned-“Polka King of Pennsylvania”-turned-convicted Ponzi-scheme felon. Perfectly cast down the line, this bizarre tale of the American Dream gone kitschily awry introduces Black’s Jan in 1990, when he’d have been well on his way to realizing that dream, if only the finances would cooperate.
Jan’s got a loving wife he adores in former Miss Junior Pennsylvania Marla (Jenny Slate), and a son, David (eventually played as a teen by Robert Capron). He’s got a polka band he fronts, co-founded with “musical genius” clarinetist Mickey (Jason Schwartzman). He’s got a live-in mother-in-law (Jacki Weaver, at risk of stealing the whole movie) who nags and doubts his every move. But even she would be a small price to pay if the performing gigs he lives for actually paid the bills, rather than providing chump change. He also runs a knickknack shop and delivers pizzas on the side, yet barely keeps his head above water.
Jan is a born, shameless, boundlessly energetic showman, and his aged audience adores him. They bite readily enough when he begins soliciting investors for his “empire,” which is projected to encompass a polka TV show and other pipe dreams.Though acting with seeming good (even honest) intentions, Jan doesn’t quite realize he needs to register any such business with the government, let alone that creating a financial operation in which investors are paid back simply from new investors’ contributions (rather than actual business profit) is a form of fraud. The state does take notice, however, dispatching investigator Ron (JB Smoove), whom Jan hastily assures he will refund the moneys post-haste.
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Unfortunately, he’s already in deep enough that such a course-change could bring financial ruin. And meanwhile the investors/fans — most of them local retirees — just keep writing ever-larger checks. At this point, things jump forward five years to find Jan actually doing spectacularly well, at least as far as appearances are concerned. The band has expanded, its presentation is splashier (Jan’s costumes now approach Neil Diamond-meets-Liberace sequined grandeur), its crowds are bigger. One of the band’s recordings even gets nominated for a Grammy. But sooner or later the accounting shell-game he’s playing is going to implode, and like the titular figure in “Bernie,” one more nice guy who just wanted to make people happy — but committed significant crime doing it — is gonna go to prison.
Forbes and Wolodarsky’s screenplay has a Christopher Guest feel, albeit one that mercifully supplies real narrative structure. It draws on a story that’s outlandishly appealing in outline, but also boasts some truly stranger-than-fiction set pieces — notably when Jan sells a European package tour promising a “private audience with the Pope,” and later when Marva runs for Mrs. Pennsylvania, a crown she wins, then loses, because guess-who bribed a judge. (These things actually happened, as news clips over the closing credits attest.)
But when it comes to the film’s overall success, these wildly amusing situations take a back seat to the contributions of an excellent cast. Speaking the language of incorrigible optimism in a burlesque Polish accent, Black gets to sing (the soundtrack is wall-to-wall polka favorites, though there’s no “She’s Too Fat for Me”), hustle, and deliver broken-English homilies to his heart’s desire. The cartoonish extroversion that can be simply too much in other contexts is ideally harnessed here.
“Obvious Child” star Slate also has some inspired moments as the spouse who’s uncomplicatedly devoted, but also has a hidden, competitive streak of attention-neediness. Schwartzman nicely reprises some of his mopier roles until a midpoint transformation in which he is re-christened “Mickey Pizzaz,” a lizardly lounge type aspiring to Buddy Love-dom. While the ensemble offers several other funny supporting turns, the big kahuna here in laugh terms is Weaver, whose duly barbed in-law is a hilariously blunt instrument of domestic emasculation.
Without ever completely losing touch with reality, the expertly turned design contributions here revel in the decor and sartorial havoc that can be wrought when people of deeply tacky taste get some serious spending money.