Release Date (UK) – 8th July 2011
Certificate (UK) – 15
Country – USA
Runtime – 89 mins
Director – Kevin Asch
Starring - Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Danny A. Abeckaser, Ari Graynor, Q-Tip, Jason Fuchs
In a six-month period between 1998 and 1999 one million ecstasy tablets were smuggled into the USA by a small group of Hasidic Jews. Holy Rollers tells the fictional story of one of them.
Sam Gold (Eisenberg) is a young Hasidic Jew who is finding it difficult to decide whether to join his father in the family business or train to become a rabbi. After an arranged marriage falls through, he catches the attention of next door neighbour Josef (Bartha) who tells him about a lucrative job he has in the medical industry. Along with friend (and Josef’s brother) Leon(Fuchs), Sam travels to Europe to bring back ‘medicine for rich people’. On return they find out that they are trafficking ecstasy (the reasoning being that customs officials are less likely to give Hasidic Jews a second glance). Leon is appalled but Sam is intrigued and is soon introduced to Josef’s Israeli boss Jackie (Abeckaser) and his girlfriend Rachel (Graynor). Sam is quickly seduced by the lifestyle but finds himself becoming distanced from his family and community.
Despite the unusual setting of Holy Rollers, it is at heart a fairly conventional and familiar story. Young man becomes involved in the drug’s business and is alienated from his family as a result. The world of the Orthodox Jewish community definitely gives it a fresh spin but not enough to stop us feeling that we’ve seen this story before. It’s also a little frustrating dramatically. We are given plenty of set-ups for confrontations that never happen. Josef is doing side deals behind his Jackie’s back, Sam becomes more confident and openly cocky in front of him and starts becoming attracted to his girlfriend. You would expect this to all lead up to some sort of climactic face-off against Jackie, but it never happens. There’s also a disappointing lack of tension or urgency overall. Even when Sam is making his way through customs or meeting with gangsters carrying machine guns, there’s little sense of danger. Which means it’s never as thrilling or intriguing as you expect it to be.
The direction by Kevin Asch is fine and the script by Antonio Macia is servicable but neither are particularly inspired. There are some effective moments. The best of which is a very touching scene towards the end of the film where a stranger offers to pray with Sam in the middle of the street. We see Sam reconnecting with the faith and community that he has been neglecting and it’s quite a bold and moving scene. It’s just a shame there aren’t more of them. The film does also feel a little rushed as Sam goes from inexperienced to confident a little too swiftly, which is perhaps understandable given the film’s fairly brief running time.
What saves the film and makes it worth seeing are the performances. Jesse Eisenberg is very good as Sam. He may not exactly be stretching himself too much here, after all he’s had plenty of experience playing nervous and naive before, but it’s a fine performance all the same. It obviously won’t have the same impact as The Social Network but it still shows that he’s one of the most watchable actors around at the moment. Both Justin Bartha and Ari Graynor are very good, making the best of fairly one-dimensional characters. Bartha in particular is very impressive as Josef, showing that he can do much more than be the nice romantic lead (The Rebound) or the one who disappears for most of The Hangover. It’s nice to see him getting a role he can sink his teeth into for once. Ari Graynor is also good and her scenes with Eisenberg have a decent amount of chemistry. The rest of the supporting cast including Jason Fuchs and Mark Ivanir (as Sam’s dad) are fine with the small amount of screen time they have.
Holy Rollers is very watchable and entertaining, but it is a little low-key and is ultimately lacking in that certain something that would make it a must-see. It does remain worth seeing though thanks to some excellent performances.