Being the fact-based tale of a Hasidic Jewish youth from Brooklyn who joins an international Ecstasy-smuggling ring, the cleverly titled “Holy Rollers” would seem to promise a more dramatic ride than what it delivers. Starring Jesse Eisenberg in another coming-of-age role, here with a Talmudic twist, director Kevin Asch’s first feature is intelligent, respectable yet curiously muted in tone and impact, never fully catching the viewer up in either its crime saga or its account of individual rebellion within an insular religious community. Commercial reception looks less than ecstatic.
Inspired by the true story of an Israeli drug dealer who used Hasidic Jews as mules in the late ’90s, “Holy Rollers” hangs its drama on a young Hasid’s crisis of faith. It’s 1998, and Sam Gold (Eisenberg), the son of a Brooklyn fabric-store owner (a fine Mark Ivanir), seems all set for a solid if unspectacular future in his Orthodox community, with an arranged marriage and a rabbinical calling to look forward to. But setbacks and dissatisfactions begin to mount, as Sam struggles with his studies — he’s consistently outperformed by his best friend, Leon (Jason Fuchs) — and the girl’s parents nix the engagement, preferring a groom from a family of greater social standing.
The kid’s growing resentment — not aided by his father’s refusal to let Sam use his business acumen to maximize their profits — makes him easy prey for Leon’s unscrupulous older brother, Yosef (Justin Bartha, “The Hangover”), who offers him a courier job transporting medicine from Amsterdam to New York. Not long after learning what “medicine” really means, Sam is introduced to Yosef’s Amsterdam-based associate, Jackie Solomon (Danny A. Abeckaser, also credited as a producer), and Jackie’s alluring g.f., Rachel (Ari Graynor), and is quickly sucked into their world of shady dealings and red-light district nightclubs.
One of the pic’s subtle ironies is that Sam’s success is partly predicated on Jewish stereotypes, one of which happens to be true in his case (he’s good with money), the other not so much (no man of God would ever be a drug mule). Otherwise, “Holy Rollers” sends its protag along a fairly routine crime-and-punishment arc, the punishment being a fresh heaping of shame on Sam’s family and Sam’s ostracization from the community.
Eisenberg, Bartha and Fuchs wear their Hasidic habadashery with ease, though the fact that Eisenberg is essentially putting a Semitic spin on his durable persona — the brainy misfit, perpetually thwarted in life and love — undercuts the role’s effectiveness. And while Asch spends considerable time at the outset detailing the habits and traditions of Orthodox Jewish life, there’s not a clear enough sense of what it all means to Sam personally for his betrayal to carry the sting it should.
Pic’s nearly violence-free glimpse of the Euro-American drug trade is almost perversely unexciting, though the filmmakers are to be commended for neither sensationalizing nor glamorizing Sam’s life of crime; a few atmospheric club shots aside, the Amsterdam portrayed here could be an especially seedy corner of Gotham (where the film was mainly shot). Set and costume designs are topnotch, while d.p. Ben Kutchins gives the interiors of Sam’s home a fittingly Old World glow, all dark shadows and amber lighting.