The environment’s unusual but the story isn’t in this tale about a young Hasidic Jew from New York who becomes involved in the drug trade. In the script, fashioned by Antonio Macia after an actual case from the late nineties, Jesse Eisenberg plays Sam Gold, who’s considered a candidate for rabbinical study. But his dissatisfaction with his family’s strained financial situation, which leads to the collapse of a planned marriage, makes him an easy target for his pushy neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha), who talks him into becoming a courier carrying Ecstasy pills from Amsterdam to America. It isn’t long before he’s drawn into the life, cavorting in sleazy nightclubs with Yosef’s partner Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser) and Jackie’s girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor), and he’s estranged from his father (Mark Ivanir)—owner of a fabric store—and the wider community, including his old friend Leon (Jason Fuchs), Yosef’s straight-arrow brother.
But like all such cautionary tales, “Holy Rollers” can’t end there. Sam’s good at his work—his sleazy buddies keep saying so, at any rate—and before long he’s acting as a mid-level impresario recruiting others as mules. But the long arm of the law is not to be avoided forever, and in the end the scheme unravels and, in the inevitable final shot, Sam’s at point of arrest (cue the sound guy to lay on the police sirens as he sits near tears on a stoop beside his still-honest boyhood pal Leon, who comforts him). The obligatory title-cards at the end inform us of the disposition of the case and the fate of those implicated in it.
Eisenberg puts his usual nerdy exuberance to good use in fashioning a nuanced performance as Gold, and director Kevin Asch, working with cinematographer Ben Kutchins. makes effective use of his New York locations. But otherwise “Holy Rollers” doesn’t amount to much but a standard-issue tale of a naïve young man drawn into danger by unscrupulous criminals, who ultimately learns the error of his ways. The only thing that sets it apart is the setting among Brooklyn’s Hasidic community. Certainly it uses the milieu far better than Sidney Lumet’s misfire “A Stranger Among Us” (1992) did, but never delves very deeply into the issue of how the intensely confining rigor of the lifestyle affects young men like Sam and Yosef and leads them to violate it. The almost blind assumption of the community’s rectitude represents a failure of nerve on the filmmakers’ part.
Nor does Asch bring much energy to the proceedings. Stronger on ambience than propulsion, he lets the narrative amble along, relying on his cinematographer and cast to give it spine.The laissez-faire attitude results in some overstatement (Bartha, for instance, comes on too strong), but mostly it leaves the picture feeling rather flaccid and unfocused. Even the strong center provided by Eisenberg isn’t enough to overcome the picture’s meandering feel.
Still, “Holy Rollers” does provide a glimpse of a world not usually depicted onscreen, and an incisive turn by one of our better young actors. That’s not quite enough to make it a success, but at least it’s an interesting failure.