The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash
A solid documentary about a great musician, with passages of greatness.
On Sunday night, Sundance had the world premiere of the latest comedy vehicle from actor Jack Black, “The Polka King.” It was introduced as a welcome opposite for the programmers after they had watched “three documentaries about Syria,” and proved to have that effect with a mostly-packed house. One of the more straight-up comedies of the fest, “The Polka King” treats viewers to a bizarre true story and funky performances from its strong cast.
The movie is like a goof on the American Dream a la Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain,” but with the small-town-version scheming of a “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The dreamer in this case is Polish immigrant/polka bandleader Jan Lewan (Jack Black), who has pride, perhaps too much pride (not plainly ego) about being successful. He also has a certain naivete, both to the way that government works and his stern belief if he can think things, they will come true. At the beginning of the film, he leads a rollicking polka band that goes by his name, and owns a shop in a strip mall in Hazelton, PA that sells various Polish trinkets. We also see in a cartoonishly-cut flashback that he works various other jobs, washing bathrooms, cleaning dishes or delivering pizzas, indicating a sweet, sincere hustle.
Jan's dream of making more money and having an empire of Polish and polka-based goods leads him to giving promissory notes to his polka group fans, thinking it's an easy way to make money. He’s informed steadily that this is a ponzi scheme, that it must cease immediately, and that he has to pay back his investors. But when a sweet older couple say they want to invest even more money, Jan gives in, and takes the money. For years, he isn’t investigated, and his business ventures (a trip that promises a pope meeting, for one) get crazier and crazier. “This Really Happened” is the first line of text in the story, and feels like the refrain to the various absurd sequences that follow.
The story cuts corners with the seriousness of the events, opting to highlight the absurd details of Jan's con work, however naive he may truly be. Jack Black’s incredible, passionate performance is a key bonding agent to the script, in which he is able to make Jan vividly likable, innocent, hilarious and tragic, often simultaneously. You see the gears of choosing greed turn in Black’s head when one bad decision leads to a clumsier one, even if the movie doesn’t paint a full picture of all the businesses that he owns, or why he thinks he won't be caught. From the beginning he makes this a passionate venture along the likes of his work in “Bernie,” taking on a thick Polish accent while boasting an incredible singing voice and fantastic range. (There's a show-stopping scene where he sings "Proud to be an American" with his Polish band, which is both hilarious and chilling.) The movie repeats the message that “Bernie” sent as well, that as narratives try to cover so much territory but with a constant human anchor, Black is one of the very best for the job. With the precision of his performance and the bigness of his presence, he is able to find the empathy that allow us to connect and laugh with strange characters.
As Jan’s business leads to wilder sequences, “The Polka King” boasts supporting performances that match the craziness and equally surprise. Jenny Slate gives one of her best performances yet as the wife of Jan, who has her own interest in the spotlight and success, a great riff on the Melania Trumps of the world. Jason Schwartzman brings back some of the dryness most found in his Wes Anderson days, this time playing the polka band clarinet player who is a sidekick of sorts to Jan, but is also left in the dark. Of everyone though, possibly even Black, the biggest performance belongs to Jacki Weaver, who plays perfectly to the slightly elevated reality by being like a Simpsons character brought to life (Patti or Selma come to mind) as Jan’s antagonistic mother-in-law.
From co-writer/director Maya Forbes and writer Wally Wolodarsky, the movie is also able to actualize an elevated cartoonish reality for the story, starting with its excellent, gaudy production design (like the strip mall that the gift shop is located on) and editing that tells the story with sharp timing and zippy jokes. (The movie is a treasure trove of goofy physical actions by its characters.) It’s a major film for Forbes, who found the funny material within her tense personal family tale of “Infinitely Polar Bear,” but now proves she can orchestrate unique, massive comedy, especially when working with such an excellent cast.
It’s not a spoiler, but Jan Lewan was indeed at the screening last night, and (after climbing onto the stage himself) was able to clarify just how authentic the movie’s events are: “pretty much true.” Afterward, he and Black performed a polka rap (you’ll see soon, I’m sure), basking in massive applause. As someone near me asked, “Doesn’t he owe people five million dollars? Are we OK with that?” That’s a revealing observation to the slightness this movie has with the legitimately bad things Jan did. But the movie is very often fruitful with its goofiness. "The Polka King" finds a distinct balance of being good-spirited to the title person while able to let us laugh out loud about his absurdities.
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