sat 25/05/2024

Holy Rollers | reviews, news & interviews

Holy Rollers

Holy Rollers

Jesse Eisenberg shines as Hasidic drug smuggler in 1990s New York

Jesse Eisenberg as Sam Gold: from trainee rabbi to international drug mule

Great idea. Geeky Hasidic kid from Brooklyn's claustrophobic Jewish community finds his attention wandering during his rabbinical studies, and falls under the raffish spell of the older and wilder Yosef Zimmerman. He finds the slope is slippery indeed, and with head-spinning speed he's enmeshed in a transatlantic drug-mule racket. He's making big piles of wedge, but losing his immortal soul in the process.

Kevin Asch's directorial debut, which is based on the true story of a team of Hasidic smugglers who imported a million Ecstasy tablets from Amsterdam to the USA in 1998-99, has potential in buckets. It's a glimpse inside a mysterious closed society, run according to strict moral and religious guidelines, counterpointed against a gangster-infested drugs trade which, behind its louche and threatening exterior, also adheres to its own rigorous code.

For his main protagonist, Sam Gold, Asch made the pluperfect choice by casting Jesse Eisenberg, the acme of neurosis and emotional inhibition (the role pre-dates his Oscar-nominated performance in The Social Network). Justin Bartha (pictured below with Eisenberg) brings the appropriate mix of charm, cheek and moral decay to Yosef, while tawdry gang boss Jackie Solomon is ably incarnated by Danny A Abeckaser.

Plane_trimDespite all this, when its 90 minutes have elapsed, you feel you haven't been paid in full. Maybe it's because the thriller part isn't thrilling enough, while sequences detailing Sam's Orthodox family life are too exhaustingly and respectfully dull, with their meticulous depictions of family prayers or the narrow routine of Sam's father's drapery store. The arc of the story - good boy goes bad, parts company with his intended righteous path and suffers the consequences - needed a few mystery detours and gratuitous shocks along the way.

The Godfather it ain't, but it almost could have been, with Yosef occasionally triggering distant echoes of the fatally weak Fredo Corleone from Coppola's Mafia epic. The story's main driver is the mounting tension between inherited expectations within a tightly knit family framework and the secular allure of the fast and exciting world that lies beyond those boundaries. The dichotomy is personified in Sam's relationship with his fellow religious student Leon (Jason Fuchs), who happens to be the brother of the wayward Yosef. Sam is seduced by Yosef's version of the world, in which expensive cars and Rolex watches are signifiers of success, and where "women like shiny things". Sam thinks he can impress his putative bride-to-be, Zelda (Stella Keitel), with wads of cash and expensive gifts, but eventually it's the dutiful, reliable Leon she marries.

Club_trim_Credit is due to Asch and screenwriter Antonio Macia for the things they've done right. The notion of naive and unsuspecting young Hasidim being roped into an international drugs racket is a theme Mel Brooks could have gone to town on, but the film-makers have steered clear of farce in favour of cool irony (drug dealers' summit meeting, pictured above). Merely juxtaposing the Jews, with their Hasidic dress, demeanour and hair styles, alongside airport security officials and sniffer dogs or in strobe-lit Amsterdam nightclubs packed with loved-up ravers instantly generates plenty of friction and strange dissonances, although it's never quite explained how Sam (who may be naive, but is highly intelligent) initially fell for Yosef's yarn that he was importing unspecified "medical supplies" from Europe.

Sam's fall is depicted with patient subtlety, Eisenberg skilfully registering mounting despair and panic as the scale of his transgressions dawns on him. There's one especially striking shot of him walking down the street in mist, fellow Jews passing by him like ghosts whom he can no longer touch or communicate with. This isn't a great movie, but there are some fine things in it.

Watch the trailer for Holy Rollers

Sam is seduced by Yosef's vision of the world, in which expensive cars and Rolex watches are signifiers of success

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