Holy Rollers never successfully shakes off one crucial pre-viewing assumption, inspired by the puntastic title, but sustained by the set-up. This is a low budget indie flick starring Jesse Eisenberg as an awkward New Yorker, who gets embroiled in a massive drug smuggling operation, maintained by Hasidic Jews. In other hands, this could be a fish out of water, coming of age comedy, maybe with some gross-out and stoner overtones. But actually, Kevin Asch’s debut feature is the polar opposite. It’s a tragic crime drama, with ambitions of being a modern religious fable.
Holy Rollers‘ roots are in reality, being based on the true story of the ecstasy smuggling ring, which fooled airport security in the late 90s by hiding pills in the traditional dress of Hasidic Jewish travellers. Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg) is an unlikely gangster. He keeps his head down, working at his father’s fabric store while aspiring to be a rabbi and marry a nice local girl. However, a run-in with rebellious neighbour, Yosef (Justin Bartha), introduces Sam to the secular world of booze, E’s and women, causing him to turn his back on his family, in favour of ill-gotten fortune.
Indeed, whereas many crime dramas from Italian American filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola, would focus on the corruption of the protagonist in terms of personal, Roman Catholic sin, in Holy Rollers we see the boy’s decline not as an affront to his god, but to his community. So, whereas Michael Corleone in The Godfather, or Charlie in Mean Streets would wrestle with problems of the soul as they moved up in the world of crime, Sam’s fall is communicated through his exploitation of his fellow Hasids, as he tricks them into being his drug mules.
Such a unique religious landscape gives Holy Rollers a very distinct feel, but there’s the sense that it works better as post-viewing pondering than in the moment. Asch’s pursuit of a glum, naturalistic world of moral ambivalence is incredibly dry, and neither the gangster thriller, nor the moralistic fable aspects of the story are ever successfully nailed down. We see neither triumph nor true folly as Sam falls in with the wrong crowd, becomes estranged from his family, and, eventually, gets in over his head.
Apart from a promising performance from erstwhile lightweight Bartha (National Treasure, The Hangover), the film hangs on Eisenberg, who approaches the role of Sam with a similar anxiety, naivety and too smart intensity to his breakout appearance in The Social Network. Once more, he is utterly beguiling, but when this internalised, emotionally distanced shtick is paired up with a drab screenplay, it becomes a little hard to connect with Sam’s life. Antonio Macia’s script may steep itself in Orthodox Jewish prayers, sermons and tradition, but the stakes of the boy’s slip into the underworld, which doesn’t seem either dangerous or alluring, are unclear, and never compelling.
Perhaps it’s the double-edged sword of using religious concepts as the backbone of your story. When pushing hard for morality, it can be easy for it to overshadow other concerns.
Previous films have dealt with such high, ambitious content by embellishing it with style (Mean Streets), scope (The Godfather) or even surreal satire (A Serious Man). Maybe this film could have benefited from such a flourish. For despite having Eisenberg, a unique spin on sin, and history on its side, Holy Rollers has little else.
Holy Rollers is out this week.