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Grab your accordion and hold onto your wallet, 3.5 readers. BQB here with a review of “The Polka King.”
Netflix is at it again, adding a new film to its repertoire, this time a comedy biopic of Jan Lewan, the Polka King of Pennsylvania who built his empire on a Ponzi scheme. SPOILERS abound in this review. I mean, it’s based on a real life case, though honestly, I’d never heard of it until I saw this film.
Jack Black plays the titular character. At first, Lewan’s story is the stuff that the American dream is made of. He was an immigrant from Poland who moves to America, works every disgusting job there is, from janitor to dishwasher. In time, he marries Marla (Jenny Slate) and starts a polka band. Regular polka shows become the go-to event in town and Lewan capitalizes on the publicity to promote a variety of business enterprises, from a Polish gift shop to a guided European tour business.
On the surface, it all seems too good to be true. Loving wife, adorable son, a business empire based on his love of Polka music and even a grammy nomination. Alas, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
To fund his various ventures, Jan takes “investments” in the form of promissory notes from his adoring fans, all who love and trust him. Lewan is charming and affable. He oozes positive energy, helps people find the best possible version of themselves and is considered a pillar of his community. Unfortunately, this causes his investors to keep dumping money into his enterprise, money that he doesn’t have a chance at paying back.
In truth, Jan’s businesses aren’t making money at all. They are more or less fronts for an increasingly complicated “rob Peter to pay Paul” operation. Jan offers his investors a ridiculous, unheard of 12 percent rate of return, but rather than pay them back with money he has actually earned, he just keeps borrowing money from new dupes, and uses the newly borrowed notes to pay back the older ones. In short, he was the Madoff of Polka.
Jack Black does well in this role and brings a lot of heart to it. In the film, Jan comes across as a bit of a naïve fool, a dummy who thought it was perfectly fine to keep borrowing and borrowing into infinity. At least, he appears that way at first, but as the film moves on, he delves deeper and deeper into more treacherous behavior. Fame and success are like drugs. He wants to be popular and famous and loved and the constant borrowing allows that to happen.
My main criticism is there is a lot of focus on how Lewan suffers as a result of his scheme. True, I’m sure he did suffer but to be fair, the film might have shined more light on how his scheme hurt others, especially elderly retirees who trusted Jan with their life savings. At one point, an elderly couple who lost their money is made out as if they are villains for hating on Lewan (i.e. Lewan’s mother-in-law shouts at them that they were greedy for thinking a 12 percent return on an investment could ever be real.) It may be true that people who would give tons of money to a Polka player in the hopes of a huge payday aren’t too bright but at the same time, Lewan was lovable and came off as trustworthy so at the end of the day, Lewan was wrong for taking advantage of the trust placed in him.
Jenny Slate is great as Marla, Lewan’s beauty queen wife who stands by her man at first but over time, seeks to have her own piece of the pie, to have her own fame and fortune. Jacki Weaver stars as Lewan’s battle axe mother-in-law who is irritatingly yet accurately vocal about her suspicions regarding Lewan’s business dealings.
Jason Schwartzmann rounds out the cast as Lewan’s friend and band mate, Mickey Pizzazz, a buddy who is torn. He’s grateful to Lewan for saving him from a lifetime of working at Radio Shack by giving him a job as a musician that pays a living wage, but at the same time, he suspects chicanery.
Ironically, J.B. Smoove, the comedian known for playing larger than life, “Don’t give a F” characters like Leon on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” serves as the voice of reason in this film. Smoove plays Ron Edwards, a securities and exchange commission agent who initially lets Lewan off with a warning in the early days of the scheme when it could all be cast aside as a simple misunderstanding only to hunt him down when his operation blows up. While I would hate to see Smoove drop his comedy, this turn shows he does have some range and could be tapped to play more serious characters in the future.