Netflix’s new movie The Polka King is a biopic of the real life Polka King of Pennsylvania, Jan Lewan. In 2004 he was arrested for running a Ponzi scheme to finance his various polka enterprises. The film is based off the documentary The Man Who Would be Polka King and notes the real Jan Lewan wrote about his life while in jail.
I knew this movie was about this scheme before I went in. The trailers and film summary tell you the movie is going to be about the scheme. Yet it wasn’t until halfway through the film I realized, with a start, Hold on, Lewan is scheming people out of their money!
Why did it take me so long to realize the film was portraying Lewan’s Ponzi scheme, when I knew that was what the film was about? How was I so surprised by what I knew before I pushed play?
What I saw while watching was a kind, hard-working family man who was just so… so genuine. Sure, part of it was that he was played by Jack Black, but his dreams and unabashed hope for America and love for his family and unyielding work ethic made me forget that what he was doing was technically illegal. People were giving him the money willingly! He was giving people generous interest on their money (at least for a while). What’s so wrong with that?
So in a way, Jan Lewan, and The Polka King, schemed me. I was duped in a film about people being duped. So what you should take away from this is that if Lewan asked me to invest with him, I probably would. I would be a tremendous sucker. Please don’t call me up for (my little bit of babysitting) money. But that also means, at least to this particular viewer, that the film not only pulled me in and made me sympathetic for the criminal protagonist, but also made me into one of the characters. It put me in the place of the investor who fell for his charm and earnestness.
Now the film doesn’t get high marks exactly for how they make Lewan likeable. Patriotism, love for family, hard working, lovable goofiness, and an accent is the easiest and most black and white way to make a protagonist likeable. But the film does get high marks for using this as a way to make the morality of the situation grey. How can such a good man get punished so harshly? Should he even be imprisoned- did he really understand what he was doing? But he did, and now I’m angry that I’m defending him.
Ultimately, the film is able to stay pretty unbiased towards the material. It presents Lewan as a well-intentioned man who did wrong, which is how he was described in real life. The audience is the one that is left frustrated on how to respond.
Jack Black grounds the film with his Lewan being a wily, whimsical man with dreams and a dark ambition. He does most of the heavy lifting as his supporting cast get to ramble free with their own kooky stories. Jenny Slate and Jason Schwartzman are fun to watch, but are really there just to give stakes to the greater story. Their individual side plots do not have any thematic resonance on their own. Most of their contributions are true though, and the entire film is fairly accurate, which just goes to show how finding the right story is all you need for a compelling real-life movie. This movie is the true The Greatest Showman.
However, it’s the job of a film, a piece of art, to take a real-life story and find the thematic, universal message within it, and the failure of The Polka King to tie everything together and make each thread of the movie count, not just let it be filler distraction, makes it a weaker film.
This is director Maya Forbes’ second feature film, her directorial debut being 2015’s incredible Infinitely Polar Bear, a tender semi-autobiographical story about her own childhood. The Polka King is a less precise film, maybe because it is more of a comedy and doesn’t have Forbe’s own life and personal stakes in it. With a little more care, every scene and storyline in Polka King could have hit home perfectly. With a little more thought, the film could have relied less on Jack Black to pull the storylines of the other characters into his own.
That being said, The Polka King is a satisfying, whimsical real-life fable and cautionary tale that tells a story too crazy to be true. Just be warned- you might find yourself sympathizing with someone who would try to take all your money. Bleeding hearts (and get-rich-quick suckers) be warned.