In last week’s column, when I reviewed the movie “Solitary Man,” I wrote that the part played by actor Jesse Eisenberg deserved official classification as “The Jesse Eisenberg” role. I described this as being, “the ‘nebbishy,’ hangdog, quietly attractive kid who would like to be with the good looking girls but needs coaching.” Yes, Eisenberg does tend to play the same kind of role over and over but then again that is also the mark of a movie star. In other words, we know what we are going to get.
In “Holy Rollers” Eisenberg plays Sam Gold, a young Hassidic man who becomes involved in drug smuggling. True to “Eisenberg” form Gold is a “nebbishy” young man who cannot get the girl. In fact, the story’s conflict stems from an attempt at a pre-arranged marriage not working out for Gold and disappointing him terribly. The latter combined with Gold’s frustration at the way his father runs his business and the general repressiveness of Hassidic culture causes Gold to get into the drug mule business via an unscrupulous neighbor Yosef, well played by Justin Bartha.
Although the story is fictional apparently between 1998 and 1999 Hassidic Jews were used to transport Ecstacy, a popular drug on the club scene, from Amsterdam and Europe into America. The idea was that as long as the Hassidic men and women acted “Jewish,” as they are frequently told to do in this film, no one in airport customs would search them or ask them to open their suit cases. According to “Holy Rollers” the idea worked for some time.
What Eisenberg brings to the role of Sam Gold, that is unique from his other roles, is the moral quandary inherent in a religious person pursuing such a blatantly illegal business. The whole story hangs on this conflict. The film is a mostly well-made straight-forward morality tale but unsurprising. The situations and characters are interesting but we know where it is all headed. Once it gets there, there is no great payoff.
Certain scenes are not brought to their conclusions. At one point Gold drives away, leaving Yosef stranded when Yosef gets into a fight with customers over a drug deal. We are never shown how this plays out or how it affects Gold’s and Yosef’s relationship. Similarly the film’s final scene feels incomplete relying on off camera sound effects followed by the abrupt appearance of title cards to tell how the story is resolved.
To a certain extent “Holy Rollers” reminded me of Lucy Walker’s very good 2002 documentary “The Devil’s Playground” which dealt with the Amish tradition of Rumspringa. During Rumspringa Amish teens are sent out to experience the English world before deciding if they want to be part of the Amish church. Many of these kids become involved with drugs, the last thing one would suspect from Amish kids. “Holy Rollers” also reminded me of the excellent and completely under-rated 1984 film “The Chosen” in which Robby Benson, usually not one of my favorite actors, is absolutely perfect as Danny Saunders, a young Hassidic man who, like Gold, wants to experience life outside of his community. However Saunders does not go to the extremes to which Gold does.
“Holy Rollers” contains a good performance by Eisenberg and is for the most part a story fairly well told, if predictable.
“Holy Rollers,” director Kevin Asch, 2010,
First Independent Pictures, 89 minutes, Rated R