Want to talk problematic crushes? No, I don’t mean world-threatening MCU villains with killer charisma. You can keep your dyed-in-the-leather bad boys and your rakish but wounded aristocrats. The man of my dreams is a Polka King. Specifically, I want the version of wildly charismatic con man portrayed by Jack Black in the undersung 2017 film The Polka King.
Co-written and directed by Maya Forbes, this comedy biopic centers on Jan Lewan, Polish immigrant turned Pennsylvanian entrepreneur turned self-proclaimed Polka King turned convicted fraud. The exploits of the real Jan Lewan were first jocularly unfolded over a barstool in the documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King, on which Forbes’ film was based. The real Jan Lewan is undoubtedly a cad, a man who ensnared elderly investors into a polka Ponzi scheme with the irresistible allure of a flashy wardrobe, a dancing bear, Polish tchotchkes, and a private audience with the pope. Yes, the pope.
It’s a stranger-than-fiction story so enthralling that I recommend watching both movies. Seeing how many of the lines that Forbes and co-writer Wallace Wolodarsky plucked from the doc’s eccentric interviews is fun enough to justify this DIY double-feature. But today, I’m not here to advocate for these fantastic films. I’m here to lay down my defense because I’m crushing hard on the fictional Jan Lewan.
It’s a tricky task casting the debonair polka bandleader, who earned a Grammy nod and enchanted the whole of Northeastern PA. You need someone with robust charisma, a swagger as intense as it is inviting, the stage presence of a rock star but the physique of a couch potato. Part of the lure of Jan Lewan was that he felt like a superstar who was genuinely down-to-earth, even as his heads were firmly in the clouds. Simply put: Forbes needed Jack Black.
As half of the dynamic duo Tenacious D, Black has proved his rock star chops over and over, delivering outrageous songs that make any polka (or even a polka-rap) seem easily in his wheelhouse. He’s translated that showman swagger onto the big screen time and again, becoming not only a beloved star of children’s movies but also a swoon-worthy love interest in The Holiday. During the pandemic, he goofed about in his backyard in costumes. And where the “Imagine” video drew ire, he drew a resurgence of fans who recognized simply: Jack Black is hot.
To quote another TikTok meme/Jack Black role (specifically School of Rock): “Once I get up on stage, start doing my thing, people worship me, because I’m sexy and chubby, man.”
Black brings all his bravado into the character of Jan Lewan. So, even as you witness him lying to his investors, his family, and the government agents at his door, you can’t help but wish for things to work out for him. And look, his crimes were awful, pitching untold polka fans into financial disaster. But he did it for love!
To others, Marla (Jenny Slate) was a “Mrs. Jan Lewan,” but to him, she was his queen, the mother of his prince, and “My light, the love of my life, the one and only.” In The Polka King, Jan lavishes Marla in adulation. When commanding a sprawling polka band and a rowdy crowd, he directs both to cheer for her. (“Ziggy Zaggy Ziggy Zaggy Oi Oi Oi!!!”) He works tirelessly to build their empire, which includes not only the touring band but also a novelty shop filled with Polish trinkets. He defends her against her sneering mother (Jacki Weaver). He brings home the bacon and fries it up in a pan, alongside eggs and pancakes for family breakfast. (Literally.) He is tirelessly optimistic and supportive. So, when she wants to step out of his shadow and into the spotlight of a local beauty pageant, he throws all he has into promoting her rise to the podium…even if it means his downfall.
The hokey ’80s training montage gets a cheeky revival as Marla (Slate) tromps in preparation for the pageant. The money laid down for dresses, travel, and accessories parade along as bouncy music blares. It’s not “Eye of the Tiger” or some other traditionally inspirational jam that is her soundtrack. It is of course a love song, performed buoyantly by Jan (Black). But that’s just the prelude. Jan will also rent buses (plural) to transport fans to her pageant, where they will cheer for her as if it’s the opening of the Hazeltown Onion Festival. After all this support, it’s not like Jan would allow for her not to win. He’d do anything for her…whatever the cost.
There will be no happy ending for these lovers, who were not — the film notes — partners in crime. Still, even as Jan’s over-the-top devotion turns heads, even as their family faces scorn and he confronts criminal charges (and worse), I can’t help but pine for the fantasy that throbbed so vividly that a whole community bought into it with relish (and sauerkraut).
I can’t help but wish to be loved like only a Polka King can.