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The Polka King
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Polka King is a movie based on the true story of Jan Lewan (Jack Black), a charismatic music man who took his popular Pennsylvania polka band to unexpected heights of popularity, including a 1995 Grammy nomination. At the same time, he took a greedy group of gullible "investors" on an unbelievable ride: They lost millions. Lewan is a duplicitous soul, but, as played by Black, he's unabashedly captivating. Expect some swearing (one use each of "s--t," "son of a bitch," "ass," and "f--k"), as well as a few racy expressions and a shot of a man sitting on a toilet in his prison cell. There's an off-camera bus accident and an off-camera stabbing, which result in images of a comatose patient and a bloody man getting medical aid. Despite the seriousness of the crimes committed -- a pyramid scheme that mostly targeted seniors -- the film is a played-straight, comic portrayal of an outrageous flimflam man and the equally exaggerated characters who surround him.
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What's the story?
During the final decades of the 20th century, Jan Lewan (Jack Black) is THE POLKA KING, the consummate showman. In the Pennsylvania circuit through which he travels with his stalwart band, Jan is famous and beloved. He has a devoted fan base, a devoted wife, Marla (Jenny Slate), and a loyal best friend, Mickey (Jason Schwartzman). Jan is joyful and ambitious, and he sparkles with an innocent grin and a bounce in every step. He envisions a future "polka empire," and his mini-mall gift shop is only the beginning. To expand, he needs money, and one-state polka bands and gift shops aren't enough to get him to "the big time." When two elderly fans hear about his ambition, they ask to invest in his future "empire." At first reluctant, and then quickly aware of the endless possibilities, Jan is thrilled. Not only will their money help The Polka King, he'll help them as well. Twelve percent! That's what he'll pay in interest. He assures the throngs of senior fans who want in that everyone will be a winner. And they are winners -- every last one of them. At least until they aren't. The 12% gets harder and harder to pay out, given the lifestyle Jan is living. Then there's the fact that his empire doesn't seem to be expanding. And, most critically, Jan just can't bear to see his wife's dream of being Mrs. Pennsylvania be dashed, so he makes a devastating mistake. To the astonishment of everyone, including Jan, The Polka King's "innocent scheme" begins to fall apart and the meltdown begins.
Is it any good?
Jack Black, along with a bevy of other vanity-free performers, makes this satiric ode to an oddball scam artist both watchable and entertaining. True, the audience is laughing at, as well as with, the inherent shallowness and obliviousness of the central characters. And the film never deigns to consider the hardships that may have befallen the folks who were willing to fool themselves as easily as Jan Lewan fooled them. Still, The Polka King is one of those "stranger-than-fiction" true life tales that appeals to all of us who are sure we'd never fall for such a glaringly impossible scheme. Or would we? The production is solid; the polka music is, well, polka music, but the creative team is judicious with it, so it goes down easily. A silly, outlandish tale, only more appealing because it (mostly) really happened.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the challenge of making a comedy about a criminal who hurt others. In this case, the victims weren't blameless; they were greedy, but they were still exploited. Did you have sympathy for them? Why or why not? Would The Polka King have worked if it wasn't funny? How does Black's portrayal affect your response?
How did the actresses playing Marla Lewan and her mom, Barb, transcend the usual stereotypes of "ditzy wife" and "nagging mother-in-law" to make those characters unique? What's meant by the expression "vanity-free" performance?
What's meant by the statement "You can't cheat an honest man"? How does it relate to victims in The Polka King?
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