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Polka racket

The true story of a polka king’s Ponzi scheme

Jack Black in “The Polka King”

For many, “Only in America” means hope with endless possibilities. For Jan Lewan—a Polish immigrant, entrepreneur, and polka band leader—it was a dream that became a cautionary tale.

“The Polka King,” a Sundance Film Festival entry now streaming exclusively on Netflix, is a gonzo account of Lewan’s rise and fall. His illegal business practices may not have been worth the investment, but the film about him is.

Jack Black is perfectly cast as Lewan, aka The Polka King, a charismatic entertainer who set out to build a polka empire. He was successful—but only by bilking elderly fans out of millions.

Part of what makes Lewan so compelling, even empathetic, is that he never intended to cheat any investor. It was business naiveté and an insatiable aspiration for the American Dream that unwittingly put Lewan in a financial and legal hole. By the time he realized what he was doing was wrong, he was in too deep to crawl out.

Feeling he had no other choice, Lewan doubled down on the Ponzi scheme he’d inadvertently created, using money from new financiers to pay off old ones, because profits were never part of the business model.

“The Polka King” is about how Lewan built this house of cards and kept it from falling apart for the better part of the ‘90s.  It’s one of those whoppers in which truth is stranger than fiction, a story of the impossible ventures Lewan had no right thinking he could pull off—but did.

His charming powers of persuasion, driven by a sincere belief in himself, assuaged the red flags that popped up for his wife Marla (Jenny Slate), drummer and business associate Mickey (Jason Schwartzman), and others. Only his badgering mother-in-law (Jacki Weaver) could see through the facade, but Lewan’s positive zeal always trumped her grating pessimism.

The film is as much a testament to Lewan’s unshakeable determination and work ethic as it is an exposé of his own delusion. And, as in most tragedies, it’s not the one risk taken too far that brings everything down; it’s a seemingly inconsequential, peripheral event that triggers the collapse.

As Lewan, Black exudes an earnest magnetism. Slate and Schwartzman bring human dimension to supporting archetypes as well, and the ensemble includes welcome cameos by J.B. Smoove and Vanessa Bayer.

Lewan wanted to build something that meant something. For him, the Ponzi scheme wasn’t a scam; it was a stop-gap. The confidence he had in himself and his team made riches seem inevitable, along with making everything right. He never thought he was taking people for suckers because, ultimately, he was a sucker himself.

“The Polka King” captures that innocence, leaving you with the hope that, someday, Lewan will get the kind of second chance that can happen in America.

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