Biopic month continues, now featuring the subtheme of dirtbag men! This week’s dirtbag is also a legend of the music scene–specifically, the polka scene.
The Polka King
The true story of Jan Lewan, the self-proclaimed polka king of Pennsylvania who, among other things, ran a multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme.
As we begin, Jan Lewan, seems to be a fairly successful manager and lead singer of a small polka band. In addition to the polka band, Jan sells Polish merchandise, owns a pizza place, and sells his own brand of vodka. Nonetheless, Jan is barely making ends meet, a fact his mother-in-law, Barb, never lets him forget.
Ambitious and determined to live out his own American dream, Jan wants to build a life where he can live comfortably with his wife Marla and son David. Yet the polka band Jan has worked so hard to put together is in danger of falling apart as bff Micky Pizzazz, earning almost nothing from the venture, threatens to quit.
When elderly fans of the band want to invest in Jan’s business ventures, he eagerly jumps on the opportunity, despite not being an investor or having a registered investment company. Though Jan promises an outrageous return on investment, he’s not worried–the cash infusion has solved his short-term problems and kept the band together.
It doesn’t take long for the FBI to discover Jan’s amateurish scheme and warn him to return the money. Jan agrees to this, but his fans still insist on investing large sums with his business. What’s a guy to do…surely it would be rude to turn them down?
As Jan rakes in more and more cash, he also spends wildly. Organizing a European trip, Jan promises an audience with the pope to all on the tour. Somehow he manages to pull this off, though Micky is extremely agitated with Jan’s freewheeling style.
Five years pass, and Jan’s polka band has earned him a Grammy nomination. Meanwhile, Marla, tired of living in Jan’s shadow, decides to recapture her beauty pageant days by competing for the title of Mrs. Pennsylvania. Against the odds, Marla wins…though begins to receive some strange calls about the nature of her victory. Could Jan perhaps have something to do with this?
As investors hear about the scandal surrounding the pageant, they begin pulling their money from Jan’s company. However, he insists they’ll get an even better return if they wait just a little while longer.
Suddenly, while on tour with the polka band, the van crashes and David ends up on life support.
Jan worries this is a sign God is punishing him, and prays for the punishment to fall on his shoulders instead of his son’s. What will happen when Jan’s schemes finally catch up with him?
3/5 Pink Panther Heads
Eh, this is a reasonably interesting story, but I’m not sure it merits its own movie. The story with the pope is apparently true, which is quite remarkable. But the pacing of this movie is odd, and a traumatic event like David’s near-death experience is just sort of an aside. Interestingly, the same thing happened with Vince’s daughter in The Dirt. Coincidence?
Jan comes across as charming and charismatic, and it’s easy to see why people would foolishly trust him with their money. However, his portrayal in this film implies he just naively believes this sort of opportunism is part of being an American and lacks the empathy and foresight to see the impact on his victims. I have trouble believing there was no malice or that a lack of awareness makes his schemes any less awful. Many people do manage to forgive him, but that strikes me as the mark of a successful con man.
There’s some fun here, and the performances are great, but it isn’t enough to make this film or story stand out. Breaking news: the men of polka can also be dirtbag con artists. What a shocker.