We live in a world of unbelievable things. In an unusually strong January/February period stacked with Natalie Portman mindblowers like “Annihilation,” charming family films like “Early Man” or “Paddington 2,” and Marvel’s best film in a decade, “Black Panther,” the film I found myself most drawn to is an obscure Netflix original starring Jack Black as an unrealistically ponzi-scheming Polka singer.
What Works: Jack Black. He almost single-handedly elevates this film from a so-so comedy into a fable of the American Dream. Some of the negative reviews have mentioned that Jan Lewan is too likable and the film should’ve found the hidden creep beneath his sunny facade, but would that really have been better? Of course not, and it would’ve missed the irresistible charm of Jan that got so many to believe a “cut-rate Polka musician” could deliver such amazing returns. Someone like Bernie Madoff had the SEC bonafides to at least look legitimate, and the film’s great joke is that Jan never does, but he’s so seemingly guileless and optimistic that you just can’t see him conning you. Partly because he doesn’t really believe he is.
Black’s career is interesting because he started out playing honest jerks (like his rock-snob music store employee in “High Fidelity”) who hadn’t actually broken any laws and were being honest with people–themselves included–but weren’t exactly people you’d want to be around in real life. Now, he’s excelling playing deceptively-polite criminals (his “Bernie” murderer) who appear to be making people’s dreams come true. Jan is so enjoyable because even he doesn’t believe he’s doing anything wrong, the American Dream taken to a form of optimistic psychosis.
What Doesn’t: The film’s critics aren’t necessarily wrong when they say the movie doesn’t dig deep enough into Jan’s facade or the motivations behind it, but you can also see how that would’ve made things fall apart–not unlike Jan’s scheme once his victims begin to really examine things. How can you psychoanalyze Jan, who is such a ball of hustling energy there may not be all that much beneath his actions?
What I Would’ve Done Differently: This is a film that’s perfectly paced, excellently cast (Jenny Slate, Jacki Weaver, and JB Smoove all lend great assists), and infectious with the main character’s belief in American optimism. I can honestly tell you it’s the most fun you’ll ever have seeing a ponzi scheme unfold, and that’s no small feat.