Review: Holy Rollers
PLOT: Sam Gold is a young Jewish man surrounded by a world of tradition. He is set to marry a young woman he doesn’t know and he has plans to become a Rabbi. Yet he is frustrated by his father’s lack of ambition to build up his fabric store and bring in more money for his family. So when he is offered a chance to make some extra cash from his best friend's older brother, he takes it. While at first he has no idea what exactly he is doing aside from transporting “medicine”, his desire to make money quickly eases his concerns. “Inspired by true events”, this crime drama focuses on the drama rather than the crime.
HOLY ROLLERS is a much quieter film than I had expected. This dramatic story of Hasidic Jews used to smuggle ecstasy in the late nineties seemed like it would have made for a very bleak film, but really, it’s not that bleak. For much of the first half, we learn about the customs and the tradition of a poor Jewish family surviving in a modern world. Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg) is about to be married off to a girl he doesn’t know, and he is expected to become a Rabbi. His path has been set by his strict, but loving father Mendel (Mark Ivanir). While he has never met his fiancé, it doesn’t matter because it will improve their status in the community. But Sam begins to wonder why his father, who runs a fabric store, doesn’t make an effort to really make a profit himself. At one point, Sam argues with his father that he is being much too generous for a rich customer. Yet Mendel tries to teach his son the value of hard work, and getting by with what you have. This is a lesson that Sam doesn’t want to learn.
Since this is a crime drama, I don’t need to tell you that things are going to get really bad for Sam at some point. And of course, it isn’t long before Sam and his friend Leon (Jason Fuchs) are convinced by Leon’s older brother Yosef (Justin Bartha) to earn a little extra cash. Soon Yosef introduces this young innocent to an Israeli businessman named Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser) and his girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor). The problem for Sam is that he is too smart for his own good, yet he finds himself addicted to the lifestyle he has discovered, leaving his father’s plans for him long gone. As far as family drama’s go, I found the Gold’s to be very genuine. With their high expectations for their son, it a bit refreshing that the film spent time developing Sam’s relationship to his father. It was especially moving as Sam fell from grace and left the ones he loved behind simply for the love of money, even if his original intentions were true.
There have been constant comparisons to Michael Cera when you mention the name Jesse Eisenberg. And while I certainly see the similarity, both fit certain criteria that maybe the other wouldn’t necessarily be right for. With Jesse’s performance in Holy Rollers, his work is absolutely solid. He connects with the cast and gives the audience a likeable, if flawed, leading man. His role is not simple, as Sam Gold is a very complicated individual trying to find the balance between his religious and moral views, and the desire to make life better for him and his family. I loved his work here. I especially liked his connection with Bartha and Graynor. In fact, both Justin and Ari are equally terrific. Justin gets to play the troubled criminal here and it is fantastic to see. I like this guy more and more. As for Ari, her Rachel brings the best out of all the actors around her. Not only is she incredibly sexy in the role, she also gives the film a little edge and charm.
My biggest problem with Holy Rollers is that it is simply not daring enough. While it is refreshing to see a crime drama that doesn’t strive to be an over-dramatic and overly stylized bit of violence, this is almost too subtle. Don’t expect any shoot-outs or any blazing guns at all. This is simply a character driven film that happens to involved drugs and a few other serious subjects. Yet it wouldn’t have hurt to add a little suspense and a chance to see a darker world than we did. Even the end, which comes up pretty quickly, feels rushed and a little anti-climatic. After all, this runs a mere 89 minutes, utterly surprising for a drama of this nature. Yet I did like the attention to detail when it came to the spiritual side and I also appreciated the subtle storytelling, even if it sometimes left me wanting more. My rating 7/10 -- JimmyO