out of Five
Running time: 89
Holy Rollers has an intriguing premise and features a typically great performance from Jesse Eisenberg, but it fails to engage on an emotional level and the decision to film it as an indie-style drama doesn't quite work.
What's it all about?
Directed by Kevin Asch, Holly Rollers is based on a true story (or “inspired by true events”, which isn't quite the same thing) and stars a pre-Social Network Jesse Eisenberg as Sam Gold, a 20-year-old Hasidic Jew. Working in his father's struggling fabric shop in 1998 Brooklyn, he is about to begin rabbinic training, when his best friend's (Jason Fuchs as Leon) older brother Yosef (Justin Bartha) tells him about his lucrative “medicine-importing” business. Sam is keen to get involved and soon becomes part of an Amsterdam-based drug-smuggling ring led by affable gangster Jackie (Danny A Abeckaser).
Things get more complicated for Sam when he falls for Jackie's girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor) and begins recruiting drug mules from within the Hasidic community at Jackie's insistence. Meanwhile, Yosef's fondness for drugs, women and money lead him into some reckless behaviour that could have dangerous consequences for Sam.
Jesse Eisenberg's nervy screen persona is perfectly suited to Sam and he delivers a typically superb performance, generating strong chemistry with both Graynor and Abeckaser. There's also strong support from Bartha and Fuchs, though the film more or less abandons the relationship between Sam and Leon once Leon decides he wants out.
The main problem is that the script can't quite decide on the tone of the film and veers between serious, occasionally moralising drama and offbeat comedy. Similarly, the decision to film the story in the style of an independent movie (handheld camerawork and so on) doesn't quite pay off and it's hard to avoid the feeling that it might have been better served by a more traditional Hollywood approach.
On top of that, the film ultimately fails to engage on an emotional level because you never quite know what Sam really wants: his religion doesn't seem particularly troubled by his illegal activities but he doesn't seem all that seduced by money, women and drugs either.
By the same token, his relationship with Rachel (to say nothing of his supposed fiancee back in Brooklyn) is too thinly sketched to make an emotional impact.
Holy Rollers tells an intriguing true story and is worth seeing for a typically great performance from Jesse Eisenberg, but the script feels underdeveloped and it's never as exciting or as emotionally arresting as it ought to be.