‘Holy Rollers’ not sure where to go
Most of the world’s religions place a premium on divine grace and transcendent revelation. Sammy Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), the young Hasidic Jew at the center of “Holy Rollers,’’ has a more worldly approach. Given the choice, he’d rather deal ecstasy than experience it.
Inspired by an actual late-1990s case in which young Orthodox Brooklynites served as mules for an international drug ring, “Holy Rollers’’ has a great dramatic premise and no idea where to take it. The film’s first half, in which the ambitious, dissatisfied hero ventures further and further from his Crown Heights enclave, is gripping and funny, and it keeps tipping you off balance. How far into the night will Sammy go? Will he cut off his family, his culture, his peyas? Eisenberg, who has made a virtue of beleaguered passivity in “The Squid and the Whale,’’ “Adventureland,’’ and “Zombieland,’’ shows enough spine in the early scenes to make an audience want to find out.
The direction by Kevin Asch and script by Antonio Macia — both newcomers — is at its strongest showing the profoundly conservative society against which Sammy is kicking. The Hasidim and other Orthodox Jewish sects exist outside the world while living in the midst of a teeming metropolis, and “Holy Rollers’’ paints their devoutness as both richly textured and naive. Sammy’s father (Mark Ivanir) is a gentle garment-trade philosopher and, in his son’s eyes, a loser who lets customers cheat him and who can’t even provide his wife with a working stove. The family’s poverty dooms Sammy’s betrothal to a local shayna maidel and sets the kid seething, easy prey for the shark next door.
This character, Yosef (Justin Bartha), is in many ways the most interesting in the movie: A bad-boy Hasid who cusses, drinks, and hangs with a crew of track-suited drug dealers — it’s all right, they’re Jewish — and who needs to recruit more mules to ferry ecstasy from Amsterdam to New York. What US customs official would suspect a Hasid? Bartha breaks out of a run of colorless supporting roles (he was the groom in “The Hangover’’) with a defiant, messy performance; He’d be the De Niro/Johnny Boy figure if the movie would let him.
The contrast between the Orthodox and their new business partners is fertile stuff, and there’s additional comedy in watching Sammy’s eyes widen at the sight of Rachel (Ari Graynor), the seriously un-kosher girlfriend of the ring’s Mr. Big (Danny A. Abeckaser). Rachel sees Sammy as a kid brother and a fellow lost soul, and she loves flirting with him until the poor kid twitches with lust. The drama at the heart of “Holy Rollers’’ is that, no matter how much Sammy wants to taste that trayfe, he can never break free of his roots.
As noted above, there’s a parallel here to the agonized Catholic guilt and criminality of early Scorsese classics like “Mean Streets,’’ but that only points up where “Holy Rollers’’ falls short. The second half of the film almost completely drops the ball, with the filmmakers uncertain whether to develop Sammy’s relationship with Rachel, his growing business smarts, his exile from the community, his dabbling in “the product,’’ or his deepening spiritual crisis.
Nor does Eisenberg, who in most respects is very good, have the charisma to fully dramatize the conflict raging in Sammy’s soul or, more important, to make us care about it. Even the portrayal of the Hasidic community comes to feel like window-dressing, welcome for its exoticism but never truly understood. By the time “Holy Rollers’’ rolls forlornly to its non-ending, all you’re left contemplating are the missed opportunities.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.