Director: Maya Forbes
Writers: Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky
Starring: Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, and Jack Weaver
The Polka King is a comedy based on a true story. Jack Black stars as the so-called polka king, Jan Lewan, a larger-than-life character who is not only a polka singer but also manager to operate a Ponzi scheme across several states, taking over $4.5 million from people. It’s an incredible story, that is genuinely hard to believe, and yet somehow the most outlandish parts are true.
Jan spends most of his time on the road playing polka music with his band, and then when back at home in Pennsylvania he runs a souvenir shop. He’s always dreamed of making it big in America and after learning that some of his bands are thinking of quitting due to low pay, he takes on investors to help achieve success and pay his band.
Over the course of the film things escalate and he takes on more and more investors, promising big returns without making enough money to pay them back. Polka music isn’t his only venture, with money in all sorts of businesses, including travel where he promises a trip around Europe and a private meeting with the pope. Somehow that’s true and Jan managed to get several tour groups to meet the pope, although how he did it is up to debate, the film doesn’t really give an answer for that, but it does show pictures of them together as the credits start to roll.
The film goes through around fifteen years of Jan’s life before he’s inevitably caught for what he’s doing. It shows various points of Jan’s career from humble beginnings to success, and even a Grammy nomination (another part that’s true). It’s one of those films that after its finished you do some research and are shocked to find there’s more truth than you’d expect.
The cast are all fantastic. Jack Black is great in the film, perfectly cast as the outlandish character and bringing his usual charm. Jason Schwartzman, one of the members of the band who’s unaware of the scheme, is also great and works really well with Black. Jenny Slate, who plays Jan’s wife Marla (based on Jan’s real wife Rhonda), is exceptional, playing someone completely different to Jan but is completely relatable and more grounded.
Funnily enough the film doesn’t show much sympathy towards the victims of the scheme, painting them as greedy people who should have known that the returns were too good to be true. A view that’s shared by Jan’s real ex-wife who said in a documentary that ‘no one put a gun to their head’. Instead, the film is a feel-good comedy, showing Jan as a charismatic and likable person who just got in over his head.
Overall, t’s funny and entertaining, Jack Black gives a really strong performance, and the story is interesting. It’s not a hard-hitting film about the Ponzi scheme but a fun comedy that has something for everyone.
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