If you had to name the most popular music trends of the 1990s, you might be quick to name R&B or grunge rock. In northeastern Pennsylvania, however, the answer is polka and the face of Pennsylvania Polka is the Polish Prince, Jan Lewan. “The Polka King,” just recently added to Netflix, is the based on the true story of Lewan’s rise and fall as the head of a polka empire and a lucrative ponzi scheme.
The titular king himself is played by Jack Black, whose impression of the real life person is uncanny. Black, as always, is supercharged with charisma and energy. Black is joined by other heavyweight comedy names, such as Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, and J.B. Smoove.
The film was written and directed by Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, which makes for an enjoyable, if not a bit eclectic, viewing choice. The plot is engaging, the characters are relatable and interesting, and the comedy hits that sweet spot of family-friendly and actually funny. That isn’t to say there isn’t any serious drama. The moral conflict is a familiar one rife with social commentary, an immigrant man who is trying to do the best he can for his family and friends, but ends up breaking the law to do so and causing others to suffer.
The real appeal of the story is the uniqueness of the details. The film is not particularly novel, nor is it very surprising. As far as movies go about getting rich quick, it is a paint-by-numbers. However, the setting of small-town Pennsylvania and the cultural saturation of Polish immigrants make for a really distinctive film. If you happen to be Polish or even of Eastern European descent, chances are you will see some reflections of your family in here, which will only increase your enjoyment.
There is one major caveat to enjoying this movie. Though it is mostly comedic, it is easy to forget that this was based on a real individual who scammed the elderly out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Whether he was actively malicious or simply misguided, Jan Lewan is still quite a controversial figure in Pennsylvania (for more, watch the actual documentary “The Man would be Polka King,” also on Netflix).
“The Polka King” is more than adequate as a modern comedy, but doesn’t exactly chart new territory. If you are a fan of Jack Black or have danced a polka or two yourself, you will get a kick out of this.