The Polka King: Likeable, lightweight larceny tale with an ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ beat

New Netflix original sees Jack Black star in the real-life story of a Polish-American polka band leader jailed in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme

The Polka King
    
Director: Maya Forbes
Cert: Club
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, Jacki Weaver
Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins

There's a touch of School of Rock with an Oom-Pah-Pah beat about this likeable, if lightweight comedy featuring Jack Black in a role that is, if you will, None More Blackness.

Adapted from John Mikulak's and Joshua Von Brown's 2009 documentary, The Man Who Would Be Polka King, this new feature from Maya Forbes (The Larry Sanders Show, Infinitely Polar Bear) and her co-writer husband Wallace Wolodarsky (The Simpsons), concerns Jan Lewan (Black), a larger-than-life Polish émigré with grand, and possible illegal ambitions.

At first, Jan or Yan’s – whichever you like - passionate pursuit of the American Dream seems to going swimmingly.

Working with a multi-instrumentalist musician named Mickey (Schwartzman), he forms the preeminent polka act in Pennsylvania. Appearing at a cancer telethon, he meets his beauty queen wife, the former Junior Miss Hazleton (Jenny Slate). He hopes to build an empire around his music, his Polish knick-knack shop and various hare-brained enterprises.


His caustic mother-in-law (Jacki Weaver) remains sceptical but his mostly geriatric fan-base are hugely enthusiastic. If only there was some way they could invest in their hero?

It requires the FBI to inform Jan that his ensuing Ponzi scheme is illegal, but by then, there's no turning back from shenanigans that will take us to the Grammys, and to Rome, for a private audience with Pope John Paul II.

Black, who previously mined plenty of charm from the hapless titular murderer of Richard Linklater's Bernie, remains appropriately zany and frantic throughout. Those who generally find the energetic performer a 'bit much' are advised to swipe left. And questions about the victims of Lewan's scheme are glossed over in favour of monkeyshines.

Slate and Schwartzman are as dependable as ever. Weaver steals scenes as she simultaneously and hilariously channels The Graduate's Mrs Robinson and Marge Simpson's sisters.

Susan Lyall's ostentatious, White Eagle emblazoned costumes are almost as fun as the jaunty music. Do stay tuned for the final credits to see the real Jan Lewan perform the hip-hop fusion track, Rappin' Polka, the musical mash-up you didn't know you needed to hear.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic