Imagine if Jordan Belfort’s crazy antics had been the point of The Wolf of Wall Street instead of a critique of our nation’s greed and you’d have something similar to Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky’s The Polka King. Their film also pulls from real events, but whereas Scorsese’s movie broadened its view to be an indictment of American greed, The Polka King keeps its narrow focus on the eccentric Jan Lewan, the “Polka King of Pennsylvania”, who defrauded people out of millions of dollars. The filmmakers are so enamored of their protagonist that they rarely reflect on his misdeeds, continually casting him as a tragic figure who overextended himself on the American Dream rather than a con artist who needed constant adoration and affirmation. Despite a strong lead performance from Jack Black, The Polka King is more irksome than comical.
In 1990, Polish immigrant Jan Lewan (Black) was a struggling polka performer, but he was happy enough to perform for crowds and try to expand his empire. However, the cost of expanding that empire was to create a Ponzi scheme where he promised investors (who were usually elderly citizens giving him their retirement funds) a 12% return on their investment. Through his willingness to bribe, beg, borrow, and steal to achieve his goals, Jan is able to keep his empire afloat until everything starts crashing down around him.
The film kind of loves Jan, and it wants us to love him as well. Even when he’s defrauding senior citizens, his misdeeds are painted more like an addiction than anything with actual malice or even greed behind it. His biggest failing is that he simply wants to be loved and to make people happy, which is an incredibly charitable reading of a person who was clearly cagey enough to keep luring in investors with promises of greater returns on their investments. You don’t defraud millions of dollars by mistake, and while I didn’t need The Polka King to be a morality play about how it’s wrong to steal from people, Lewan is depicted as nothing more than just a charming misfit who just happened to con people out of their money. We’re meant to sympathize with him.
Forbes and Wolodarsky almost get away with it by casting Black as Lewan. This isn’t the first time Black has played a morally dubious character with a great amount of charm, and while his performance in The Polka King doesn’t hit the same level as his turn in Bernie, he basically carries the entire film. His supporting cast, which includes Jenny Slate as his wife, Jacki Weaver as his mother-in-law, and Jason Schwartzman as his friend, are all good, but Black is easily the best part of the film. He makes you understand why people wanted to invest in Lewan even if on paper it seems bizarre that anyone would trust a Polka performer with no financial acumen.
Nevertheless, Forbes and Wolodarsky never expand their view beyond Lewan’s scheme. There’s some lip service paid to painting a connection between Lewan’s deeds and fellow con artist Donald Trump, but the film never really digs into why these figures are so compelling to certain people. For The Polka King, Lewan is nothing more than a charismatic, interesting figure. He’s quirky and offbeat instead of someone who’s dangerous.
By refusing to expand their focus, The Polka King becomes as disposable as the overpriced kitsch in Lewan’s gift shop. There’s no serious consideration of con artists or performers, and instead, the movie is reduced to this one eccentric figure. The truth in his story may be stranger than fiction, but The Polka King is largely unconcerned about what that truth means beyond funny music and shady deals.