It goes without saying that this indie curio, which hit Stateside over a year ago, has only earned theatrical distribution in the UK as a result of Jesse Eisenberg’s post-Social Network hubbub. While hardly mounted with the most robust or interesting frame, Holy Rollers is certainly a unique look at a small group of Hasidic Jews living in late-90s New York. Its strengths, though – namely the performances and cinematography – are heavily qualified by an oft indifferent script which doesn’t do the subject’s strangeness the full measure of justice.
Unquestionably, this is The Jesse Eisenberg Show from minute one, playing one of his more interesting and complex characters here – less Mark Zuckerberg and more The Squid and the Whale’s Walt – a conflicted young man named Sam, trying to do right by his family and his faith, by living up to the life they have made for him, while becoming tempted by the prospect of a “better” life acting as an ecstasy mule. As both sides begin to pressure him about what he wants to do with his life – a set-out, arranged, simple, noble existence, or a free-wheeling, dangerous life of prosperity amid questionable morals – Sam finds that he himself isn’t really sure what he wants anymore.
To be fair, for all of the film’s many dramatic misgivings, the central premise is a hilarious, winning concoction; an early image of Sam clumsily conducting a drug deal with fellow Jewish friends Yosef (Justin Bartha) and Leon (Jason Fuchs) makes the most of the amusing fish-out-of-water disparity. Their first sight of a scantily-clad cavalcade of women is played with bunny-stunned perfection by both Fuchs and Eisenberg.
Smartly, though, their naivety isn’t overplayed; the fact that Sam and Leon, under the tutelage of the troublesome Yosef, are unaware they’re smuggling drugs is done away with by the end of act one. Their descent into the whole game therefore doesn’t feel contrived or overly whimsical; they are not cardboard cut-out goody two-shoes types, but are instead at a pivotal point of their personal development, aching with plenty of doubt and insecurity, which Eisenberg especially conveys as well as he ever does.
Imagine Goodfellas by way of A Serious Man and you’ve essentially got Holy Rollers right (though the film is obviously not a patch on either); a familiar ascent story spiced with a unique Jewish flavour, though sometimes there’s the distinct feeling that more could have been done to filter it out from its drug movie brethren. The slack pacing and number of scenes essentially lifted from better films of the same ilk makes it feel less substantial and meaningful as a whole.
The reason to watch is ostensibly the performances, though; Eisenberg works through scenes with the measured level of unease he has perfected on previous projects, thoroughly unsure yet just assertive enough that we can believe his flirtation with the other side. Just as worthy of attention, however, is Justin Bartha in the meatiest role of his career to date, as the vodka-swilling, pill popping Jew less-than committed to his faith, who pulls Eisenberg into his world.
Sam’s change into a full-on badass near the end admittedly feels a touch rushed and contrived, but a poetic finale ends things on the right foot; contemplative and thoroughly moral though certainly not a sermon or tiresome excursion. A title card swiftly explaining away the end result does, however, feel tacked-on and cheap, as though the budget couldn’t quite stretch, while the lingering final shot reaches to be poignant but raises more nagging questions; how did the characters suddenly arrive at this emotional point; it feels unearned in the 85-minute runtime.
Dramatically uneven though well-performed and competently directed, Holy Rollers features an intriguing premise yet treads thin ice when battling an inconsistent script.
Holy Rollers was released in the U.K. today.
This article was first posted on July 8, 2011