Review: Holy Rollers

Strictly a missed opportunity


By Jonathan Foreman, July 7, 2011
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Unorthodox: the Chasidic drug smugglers (Jesse Eisenberg, left)

Unorthodox: the Chasidic drug smugglers (Jesse Eisenberg, left)

There were many moments in Holy Rollers when I wished that it had been made by someone like Danny Boyle. Armed with a good script, the director of Slumdog Millionaire would have been able to convey with conviction the rich strangeness of Chasidic life, the seductive temptations of the drug trade, and all the dilemmas that would confront a young man caught between the two. He would have given this true story the depth and complexity it deserves.

Unfortunately, producer/co-star Danny Abeckaser, first-time director Kevin Asch and screenwriter Antonio Macia conceived the story as a fable about a naïve and pious boy tempted by the outside in the form of drug smuggling and nightclubs. And as is obvious from their shallow and unconvincing portrayal of life within a Chasidic community, they are simply ignorant of the real-life context that makes Chasidic involvement in crime such a fascinating story.

For the film-makers the Chasidim are simply the urban Jewish equivalent of the Amish. Just as they fail mysteriously to notice the Yiddish accents that are the norm in places like Crown Heights, they have no sense of the troubling ambivalence towards secular law, the willingness to treat American authorities as if they are the Tsar's police, and the tendency to exclude outsiders from the protection of their own religious law that is all too common in some of the New York Chasidic communities.

Anyone who has ever been to one of New York's upscale strip clubs will have noticed the inevitable presence of Chasidic men. The same is true, apparently in Manhattan's massage parlours, brothels and S and M clubs. If this implies a hypocritical sense that the rules do not apply if non-Jewish women are involved, similar attitudes seem to be at play in all the Chasidic crime scandals of which anyone who reads the New York press is inevitably aware. These do not merely involve predictable tax-evasion on a massive scale - there are also scandals involving corrupt relations with politicians, the abuse of women and children within the community, and all the various scams involving kosher certification.

Those caught in the criminal justice system as a result do not seem to bring nearly as much shame to their families or the community as those who break rules involving food, dress, religious observance or relations with outsiders. And this makes the turning point in Holy Rollers all but unbelievable.

The story begins with Sam (Jesse Eisenberg) working at the textile store owned by his father (Mark Ivanir) who is too nice to be a good businessman. It infuriates Sam that the family's relative poverty undermines his marital prospects. He is therefore an easy mark for his neighbour Josef (Justin Bartha), who pays him $1000 to fly to Amsterdam and come back with some "medicine" hidden in his suitcase. Even when he realises that the medicine may be illegal, Sam believes he is not doing anything wrong. Soon he is giving Josef's boss, an Israeli smuggler, business advice and recruiting more young Chasidism to work as mules on the Amsterdam run.

He also finds himself going to nightclubs, and flirting with the Israeli's Jewish but not Orthodox girlfriend (the superb Ari Graynor, giving the best performance in the film)

Inevitably things go wrong, though to the film-makers' credit, they avoid clichéd gangster story tropes such as gunplay or chases. Unfortunately, however, much of the film is blurry and underlit. And because you often cannot see what is going on or the reactions of the characters, Holy Rollers gradually descends into dullness. It does not help that Eisenberg's range is too narrow to convey wrenching inner conflict.

It is a shame because the story had such potential.

Last updated: 2:10pm, July 7 2011