(IMAGE: NETFLIX)

It can be hard decid­ing how to eval­u­ate a cer­tain type of Netflix Original Movie. Take the new Jack Black pas­sion project The Polka King,” for exam­ple. It’s based on a true sto­ry (and a doc­u­men­tary) about a charis­mat­ic Polka band leader named Jan Lewan. Lewan is a Polish émi­gré from Hazelton, Pennsylvania whose pas­sion for music was exceed­ed only by his greed in bilk­ing seniors out of their life­sav­ings – a Ponzi scheme the movie presents as almost accidental.

Directed by Maya Forbes (“Infinitely Polar Bear”) and co-​scripted by Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, this is a fre­quent­ly brainy and at times scabrous satir­i­cal farce – a kind of I, Tonya” light about a delu­sion­al go-​getter who wrote songs with titles like Polka Bubbles” (Don Ho Estate, call your attor­ney!) and Proud to Be an American,” and whose screen incar­na­tion earnest­ly declaims that he has America up my wazoo!” The film hits a kind of sweet spot for Black too, who plays to his strengths as a hip­ster iro­nist (a char­ac­ter who takes Polka seri­ous­ly is almost the def­i­n­i­tion of hip­ster irony) while dis­play­ing the indie act­ing chops he’s been cul­ti­vat­ing since at least as far back as Margot at the Wedding.”

And yet as a movie The Polka King” has some issues. One of them, remark­ably enough, is Jacki Weaver, the great actress prob­a­bly most renowned in America for orig­i­nat­ing the homi­ci­dal Ma Barker fig­ure in David Michôd’s orig­i­nal Aussie ver­sion of Animal Kingdom.” Weaver is a tal­ent of absolute­ly lim­it­less resources, all of which have been deployed simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in her por­tray­al of Lewan’s har­ri­dan mother-​in-​law in a per­for­mance of almost oper­at­ic mis­cal­cu­la­tion. Hidden behind a curly fright wig, leop­ard skin poly­ester blous­es and a pair of Gloria Steinem eye­glass­es with frames the size of pas­sen­ger jet win­dows, Weaver looks and acts like a refugee from a high school pro­duc­tion of Hair Spray.” Every vocal inflec­tion has the cal­cu­la­tion and vol­ume of an old school Hanna Barbera car­toon voiceover – in a per­verse way, she’s singing her role at least as much as Black does in the many many Polka per­for­mances featured.

Weaver is too shrewd an actress to be caught out this way for no rea­son, and Maya Forbes is too skilled a direc­tor to shoot so much of her movie in claus­tro­pho­bic close-​ups with­out rec­og­niz­ing how they ampli­fy the gen­er­al­ized mug­ging. But that’s only if this is a movie – mean­ing a work designed to be seen in a the­atre – not if it was cre­at­ed to be watched on a phone.

Have you ever watched a com­e­dy on a phone? It has so much to com­pete with – the world, your lunch, the almost cer­tain pos­si­bil­i­ty you’ll receive a call or a text mes­sage some time dur­ing the next hour and a half. Forbes direct­ed Infinitely Polar Bear” pret­ty much in medi­um shot if mem­o­ry serves. But that was four long years ago, before the tec­ton­ic plates of visu­al media for­mats clashed so hard against each oth­er that the gigan­tic Rupert Murdoch Fox empire decid­ed to sell itself off in pieces because it was too small to com­pete with streaming.

If your movie is itself a kind of hand­held device, maybe it’s smart to shoot the faces. Maybe Jacki Weaver knows of some sweet spot some­where between a thing in your fin­gers and a human nose where that kind of big­ness gets reduced to comedic genius.

And if that’s so, how do you eval­u­ate The Polka King’s” sub­tleties? Because it has some that might be lost if you sub­scribe to Trump’s Twitter feed: A wry feel­ing for 25 year old small mar­ket TV pro­duc­tion val­ues. A sly aware­ness of how big grudges lurk in small­town life. 

Jason Schwartzman is unerr­ing­ly won­der­ful as Lewan’s hang­dog arranger and clar­inet­tist Marty Pizazz” – he amps him­self up to match the big­ness of tone while remain­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly true. SNL vet­er­an Jenny Slate chan­nels Judy Holiday by show­ing how an unso­phis­ti­cat­ed woman isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly dumb and that there is occa­sion­al strength in the weak­est of us.

What car­ries the day ulti­mate­ly is Jack Black’s unwa­ver­ing lik­a­bil­i­ty, which gets a full work­out in a movie where he’s almost nev­er off­screen. Like the late John Candy (whose death­less SCTV Polka god Yosh Schemnge Black some­times recalls), Black is our nation­al pudgy uncle, the guy who does fun­ny voic­es for us, and covert­ly pass­es us a five dol­lar bill when he’s leav­ing the par­ty and takes our 11 year old hand.

The fun­ny voice here – Black’s Polish” accent – is anoth­er mat­ter, four parts sketch com­e­dy to one part Meryl Streep.

I won­der how it’ll play on a phone.

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