Eugene Weekly : Movies : 7.1.10


The Limits of Control
Where do you stand in relation to your God?
By Jason Blair

HOLY ROLLERS: Directed by Kevin Asch. Written by Antonio Macia. Cinematography, Ben Kutchins. Music, MJ Mynarski. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha. First Independent Pictures, 2010. R. 89 minutes.

Jesse Eisenberg in Holy Rollers

Early in Holy Rollers, Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg) is dismissed from a conversation in which he’s vainly trying to project his authority. Then he’s nearly caught napping by his rabbi during synagogue. We’re meant to understand that Sam, a Hasidic Jew, is awkward and immature, although anyone recognizing the actor Jesse Eisenberg will already have reached that conclusion. Eisenberg, from The Squid and the Whale to Zombieland, has been playing the same passive character for years, a naïve, prepubescent scaredy cat. The fact that he looks like Juno’s Micheal Cera doesn’t make things any easier, but at the tender age of 26, Eisenberg is dangerously close to being typecast. The Eisenberg hero is the punching bag who punches back, the marshmallow which develops a crust, which makes Holy Rollers something of a departure.

Holy Rollers is a Hasidic Blow. The film is based on a true story that may have caught your eye in the 1990s, when authorities exposed a Brooklyn-based smuggling operation that used young Hasidic Jews as drug mules. To Eisenberg’s credit, Sam couldn’t be further from a drug smuggler. He works for his father, he’s studying to be a rabbi and he’s engaged to be married — or virtually engaged, a situation his father appears to brokering. One night, while out on the stoop, Sam’s neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha, channeling Joaquin Phoenix) asks Sam to come work for him. Yosef offers huge paychecks for delivering medicine to rich people, a bit of fibbing since the medicine in question is ecstasy, then leaves Sam to ponder the adage that “women like shiny things.” Next thing we know, Holy Rollers puts Sam’s plans in turnaround: His arranged marriage is called off, leaving him humiliated and bent on making a quick fortune. Yosef’s offer is something Sam can no longer refuse.

If Holy Rollers sounds conventional, it is, but during its first third the film feels familiar and convincing. Sam’s Hasidic community is an insular, stifling bunch, but there’s tremendous comfort and support there. Where Holy Rollers falters is in its middle stages, when Sam undergoes a transformation from student of Hebrew to a character from Boogie Nights. Eisenberg’s range is part of the problem. As an actor, he’s fidgety but not particularly sharp, resulting in a loose, unfocused performance that grows less satisfying as more is demanded of him. His awkwardness culminates at a nightclub in Amsterdam, where he experiences a bit of a nervous breakdown, perhaps after realizing that being Hasidic in a nightclub is like being Amish at Wal-Mart. It’s a pivotal scene that feels woozy and indistinct. 

While Holy Rollers avoids cliché, it doesn’t make much of an impression. First-time director Kevin Asch doesn’t bring us close enough to the core of the film, which has to be about the toll — emotional, psychological and physical — exacted when a person abandons a spiritual existence for an illegal one. Emotionally, Holy Rollers feels forced though a sieve: The result is a worthy effort, but a more lumpy mass than the story deserved. 

Holy Rollers opens Friday, July 2, at the Bijou.