“Now I am an American,” Jan Lewan (Jack Black) sings joyfully to his elderly fans in “The Polka King.” “I am just like you.” Lewan is a Polish immigrant whose rags-to-riches story could be inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, building a business empire around his polka music, including not just music but a gift shop, package travel tours and, oh, investments.
What does a polka musician know about investments? That would have been a really good question for Lewan’s fans to ask before entrusting him with their life savings. It turns out Lewan was spending the money rather than investing it, and ended up stealing millions of dollars before going to jail for five years. He really is just like us, America.
The exuberantly cynical comedy-drama “The Polka King,” based on a documentary called “The Man Who Would Be Polka King,” spins Lewan’s story into a fast-moving biopic. Both movies are now on Netflix.
Written and directed by Maya Forbes (“Infinitely Polar Bear”) and Wallace Wolodarsky, “Polka King” finds the humor in Lewan’s crimes. But it also finds the sickly sweet underside of the American dream, where hardworking folks find hard work can’t quite get them all the way there. Both Lewan and his victims are looking for a shortcut to the promised land.
Lewan packs in the community centers and beer halls in Pennsylvania with his polka music, with a large band that includes both a dancing chicken and, later, a dancing bear. But that’s a lot of overhead for a musician, and while polka crowds will pay three dollars for a kielbasa, they want the music to be free.
So Lewan starts diversifying, spreading himself thinner and thinner, and that includes taking on investors that he promised a 12 percent return. How? The film suggests that Lewan wasn’t so much corrupt as simply self-delusional, believing that somehow the American dream would deliver for him.
That delusion is key to what makes “Polka King” so much fun to watch. I kept expecting Black to reveal a darker side to Lewan’s nature, but he plays him as a charming, good-natured guy all the way through, convinced that somehow America will not let him down. Even though we know he’s a crook, we end up rooting for him — if not to succeed, then at least to somehow redeem himself.
In an almost Shakespearean turn of events, what brought Lewan’s empire down wasn’t the original Ponzi scheme, but accusations that he rigged the Mrs. Pennsylvania pageant so that his wife Marta (Jenny Slate) would win. Slate, usually playing roles as sharp as a tack, revels in playing Lewan’s clueless wife. Jason Schwartzman is funny as one of Lewan’s loyal bandmates, and Jacki Weaver does her best Jerry Stiller impression as Jan’s volcanic mother-in-law.
With both the feature and the documentary now on Netflix, viewers can compare for themselves how much of the true story makes it into “Polka King.” At the end of “Polka King,” for example, we see a chastened Lewan trying to restart his music career with Black doing a “polka rap.” It seemed a little too silly of a joke for me, but then the movie shows us the real Lewan doing the same rap over the closing credits.
Also on streaming: Think of "Bartlett" as "My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" goes to Silicon Valley. The six-part musical comedy, which premieres Jan. 30 on Vimeo on Demand, follows an advertising executive making a pitch to the mythical Pear Computing. ("Bartlett," get it?) Lin-Manuel Miranda of "Hamilton" fame has a recurring role on the show.
Acorn TV's original series "Girlfriends" premieres on Jan. 29. The addictive drama follows three longtime friends (including Miranda Richardson of "The Crying Game") navigating life in middle age.