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 be 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 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.
Unfortunately, he’s already in deep enough that such a course-change could bring financial ruin, and meanwhile the investor-fans — most of them local retirees — just keep writing ever-larger checks. At this point, things jump forward five years to find him actually doing spectacularly well, at least from an outside perspective. 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 their recordings even gets nominated for a Grammy. But sooner or later