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Film / The Polka King

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The Polka King is a 2017 film directed by Maya Forbes.

It is a Based on a True Story biographical comedy starring Jack Black as Jan Lewan, a proud Polish-American polka band leader who was arrested in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme. It also features Jenny Slate as Jan's wife Marla and Jason Schwartzman as the band's lead clarinetist.

The Polka King was first shown at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and then released on Netflix in January of 2018.

Tropes associated with this work:

  • Alone with the Psycho: After Jan is sentenced to jail, the inmate he's given as a cellmate is a very silent and determined bully that shivs Jan in the neck in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, nearly killing him. Jan is given a cell for himself after he comes out of the hospital.
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: After Jan is shivved in jail by his psychotic cellmate, two of the people he scammed approach Barb and mention this to her with glee, even saying that it's a shame that the man didn't finished the job. Barb, who wasn't exactly sad to see him get arrested herself, gets pissed off at the news instead — after all, they are being happy at a member of her family being almost killed.
  • Anti-Villain: Jan is a charming, friendly guy who works hard and loves his family dearly. He is also, technically, committing financial fraud on a multimillion-dollar scale.
  • Beauty Contest: Marla is a former local pageant queen, who enters the Mrs. Pennsylvania pageant when Jan's rising celebrity makes her miss the limelight.
  • Benevolent Boss: Jan is very friendly and encouraging to the members of his band.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: How Jan carries the money he uses to bribe his way into an audience with the Pope.
  • The Charmer: Jan, which works to his advantage as both a performer and semi-inadvertent con artist. (Until it doesn't.)
  • Christianity is Catholic: Justified in that the major characters are Polish-Americans.
  • Deconstruction: Of "fake it 'til you make it" optimism and The American Dream.
  • Distant Finale: The ending skips forward five years to show sadder-but-wiser Jan being released from jail after his five-year sentence, and reconciling with Mickey.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: Barb, Jan's harpy of a mother-in-law, observes that Jan is acting squirrelly, decides that he's up to something, and concludes that he's having an affair. Later, she observes his mysterious cash flows and how he somehow pays a whole band on concerts that don't net more than $1500 a night, and concludes that he's a drug dealer.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Barb may dislike her son-in-law Jan and spends most of her screen time suspicious of him, but when two of the investors arrive after Jan is put in jail, gleeful that Jan got shivved in the neck by his crazy cellmate and say that it's a shame the guy didn't finished the job, Barb rages at them and splatters eggs all over their car while yelling that it's their fault this happened as well by giving Jan the money, which Jan takes as her defending him.
  • Everything's Better with Sparkles: Jan's sequined bandleader outfits.
  • First Law of Tragicomedies: Starts light-hearted, but the humor goes down when consequences start to kick in.
  • Hospital Gurney Scene: Jan is rushed off on a gurney after he's stabbed in the neck by his psycho roommate.
  • Immigrant Patriotism: Jan believes and practices it, and even gets a musical number to that effect.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: It's Jan bribing the scorekeeper for the silly Mrs. Pennsylvania Pageant that his wife competes in, which, after it embarrasses him publicly and causes his investors to start pulling out, torpedoes his multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Marla Lewan's mother Barb is constantly ragging on the rest of the family and really has it in for Jan and his ambitions and constantly questions his financial activities. In context, she is right and even sympathetic, but she still comes off pretty brusque.
  • Overly-Nervous Flop Sweat: Mickey is drenched with sweat during the escapade of bringing a Briefcase Full of Money to bribe an official for an audience with the Pope. The sweat has soaked through his suit and sport coat, and Pope John Paul II declines to do the traditional laying on of hands.
  • Polka Dork: Inverted. Jan is a local celebrity because of how many people like Polka and the only character who labels him one is Barb. It provides a tragic juxtaposition to how much Jan is overreaching with his ambitions.
  • Ponzi: Jan gets the bright idea to raise money via "investments" from his adoring fans. Unfortunately, the band and his other businesses aren't bringing in enough money to repay the investments plus the interest rates he's offering - but as long as he keeps getting new investors and people don't all decide to cash out at the same time, it works.
  • Real-Person Epilogue: The credits roll over a series of pictures of the real Jan Lewan, titles explaining how he hopes to pay back the over $4 million he stole, and finally some stock footage of the real Lewan performing his awful "Rappin' Polka".
  • Sensual Slavs: Jan isn't a conventional example (although he is very charismatic in his own way), but Marla mentions finding his Polish accent exotically attractive.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome :
    • Like many other Ponzi scheme conmen, Jan's downfall happens when he just can't get any more people to provide funding and a few of them want out and he can't give them back the money.
    • Barb spends most of the film being a bitter, suspicious harpy to Jan, but when she's told that he almost got killed in prison, she doesn't enjoys it at all (because Jan is still a member of her family) and even gets enraged at the people who approached her to give her this information, who are gleeful about it.
  • Vertigo Effect: Used in the scene where Jan straight-up lies to the guy from the Pennsylvania SEC and reports that he is out of the investment business.