Review: Holy Rollers (Sundance)
PLOT: A young Hasidic Jew (Jesse Eisenberg) becomes a drug courier for a cartel connected to Israel.
REVIEW: HOLY ROLLERS is like A SERIOUS MAN meets GO. Based on a true story, the film is set in the late nineties, just as the Ecstasy business started booming. Putting this in the stranger than fiction category, it turns out that millions of pills were imported into the US by financially strapped Hasidic Jews, acting as drug mules, who thought they were importing medicine for rich people. The reasoning behind using them was simple: who'd imagine an orthodox Jew would be importing drugs?
Essentially, HOLY ROLLERS is a morality tale. At the start of the story, Sam (Eisenberg) is just another orthodox Jew living with his family, working with his father in Brooklyn garment district, while studying to be a Rabbi, and hoping for the day his arranged marriage finally happens so he can start a life of his own.
Sam`s next door neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha) is his complete opposite. He has nothing but contempt for his fellow Hasids, and he wants to live life on his own terms. It`s Yosef who recruits Sam into Israeli drug dealer, Jackie Solomon`s (Danny A. Abeckaser) world. At first Sam only wants to make enough so that his arranged marriage will be approved by the brides family, but when he`s spurned, he develops a contempt for his community similar to Yosef`s. Once he gets a taste of the high life, and his bosses` hot girlfriend (Ari Graynor), he falls deeper and deeper into the world of drug dealing.
For me, HOLY ROLLERS is a very easy film to relate to. While I don't share Sam`s religion, I can easily see how easy it would be to be lured by the promises of fast money, beautiful girls, and travel. Eisenberg does a great job as Sam, with this being yet another meaty role, adding to an already impressive run of films he`s had recently. Reading the plot line, I assumed HOLY ROLLERS would be a comedy, but this is far from it, and Eisenberg makes an easy transition into straight drama.
Still, as good as Eisenberg is, Justin Bartha is a revelation as Yosef. Only knowing Bartha from NATIONAL TREASURE, GIGLI (ugh), and being the straight-man in THE HANGOVER, I had no idea Bartha had the chops he displays here. He`s incredible as the double dealing, strung out Yosef, and he plays off of Eisenberg beautifully. At one point, Yosef`s cast out of his family home for his choice of lifestyle, despite the fact that he`s paying the bills which allows his family to keep a roof over their heads. Once he`s isolated from the community, his decent starts quickly, and Bartha plays it beautifully.
Hopefully, HOLY ROLLERS will pickup a distributor at Sundance, as Eisenberg, and Bartha`s performances alone make it well worth seeing. Couple that with energetic direction by first-timer Kevin Asch, razor-sharp editing, and a good late-nineties techno/house soundtrack, and you've got one lean, solid film.