A few weeks ago I was clued into the fact that a movie called The Polka King exists. The movie, which is based on a true story, stars Jack Black as the titular “Polka King,” a man named Jan Lewan who ran a Polish gift shop, and fronted a popular polka band in Hazelton, all while running a Ponzi scheme.
Now, that was kind of enough to make me interested. While I don’t know that I’ve ever been in Hazelton proper, I’ve driven past it enough times on trips down 81, and it falls in the confines of my beloved NEPA. What’s more, is that I have a sort of fondness for polka music. I don’t listen to it. I don’t know how to polka. I don’t even seek it out, but it’s an ingrained part of the cultural heritage here, and the sounds of “Roll Out the Barrel” (Which, spoiler alert, wasn’t included in this film) always brings me back to the church picnics of my childhood. What’s more is that my mom’s cousin is actually married to a local polka band leader, so I’m very familiar with the innate, yet charming weirdness this world encompasses. Last Easter did he whip out his accordion, and play on my parents’ front porch while both elderly and non-elderly relatives polkaed around our front lawn? Maybe. Well, yes.
As I read on though, the story got better. There’s also a strange connection to Pope John Paul the II (the Polish one, naturally), a prison stabbing, a deadly polka bus accident, and the strange saga of when Jan rigged the Mrs. (you read that right, not Miss, Mrs.) Pennsylvania pageant so that his now ex-wife, a current Scranton resident, could win.
You can’t make this shit up.
And that’s why I was excited. Much like there’s an innate weirdness around the semi-cult like NEPA Polka circuit, there’s an innate weirdness about NEPA itself, a weirdness that I’ve always thought would be exploited and explored more if its home were decidedly more glamorous, or even more outwardly strange itself. But NEPA flies under the radar, for better or for worse. As far as cultural representation goes, we really just have The Office (which I love dearly, and while it does a great job of representing NEPA’s weirdness, is more concerned with representing the everyday banal weirdness of office life), and that time Kate McCallister (Kevin’s mom, get with it) runs into Gus Polinski, the fictional “Polka king of the Midwest” at the Scranton airport.
I didn’t love this movie. I didn’t even really like it. And that saddens me. I started it a few weeks ago, and was so apathetic about it, that I didn’t even finish it till this week. And if it weren’t about NEPA, I probably wouldn’t finish it at all.
Now granted, it’s probably not a bad movie per say, but just not my style. I prefer my laughs to be both more and less cartoonish at the same time, if that makes sense. Speaking of Scranton, Michael Scott is a perfect example of this. I don’t think a movie like this, about anything, just speaks to what I find funny.
I also didn’t think it was a great representation of NEPA. Now granted, like I said, I’ve never been to Hazelton. So maybe natives watched it and thought it was spot on, and lord knows, NEPA is not a monolith. There’s jargon and experiences from people just 20 miles away that I don’t get nor understand. But it just didn’t feel familiar, if that makes sense. The houses, the cars, the clothes, or even the polka parties (with the lone exception of the pizza place Jan moonlights at–I’ve been in a million of those pizza places). My main gripe, was with the accent. NEPA has such an amazingly cartoonish, bizarre, pseudo-Midwestern accent that granted is dying, but would’ve lent what I feel was such a missing dose of character to this film. It could’ve propelled it to Fargo levels of irreverence. That was another gripe too. This could’ve been Fargo level good, if they really embraced not just the weirdness, but the darkness in this. I would watch the hell out of the story of Jan Lewan as told in a 12 part stand alone series by Noah Hawley. It’d sweep the award season. I’m sure of it.
But, what do I know. I’m not a film critic. I don’t even watch that many movies, and up until this particular one came out, I didn’t even know the story of Jan Lewan. I guess I’m just a guy who considers Gus Polinski to be the real Polka King, even if he isn’t real, and even if he left his son at a funeral parlor that one time. I mean, the kid turned out OK. He even started talking again after six or seven weeks, ya know?