Holy Rollers, the feature-film debut of director Kevin Asch, does one small thing and does it well. So well, in fact, that you find yourself wishing this miniaturist drama about Hasidic drug smugglers had bitten off a little more. As a portrait of a subculture few non-Hasidim ever get to glimpse, it’s funny, deft, and sharp. The movie’s first half goes to great trouble to establish the texture of life in Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn; the second half is a rushed and unfocused tour of the Amsterdam rave scene. It’s not often I say this about a movie, but the 89-minute-long Holy Rollers, which is based on the true story of a short-lived Hasidic drug ring in the ‘90s, would have benefited from an extra half-hour of running time.
Twenty-year-old Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg) is the filial and studious son of an Orthodox family in an all-Hasidic neighborhood. He ventures out of this hermetic circle only to work in his father’s fabric store in lower Manhattan. A rabbinical student, Sam not only expects but eagerly anticipates entering into an arranged marriage with a neighborhood girl, Zeldny (Stella Keitel). But after an awkward first meeting set up by their parents (“How many children?” “Five?” “I was thinking eight”), Zeldny rejects him in favor of another suitor.
Sam’s friend Leon (Jason Fuchs), a fellow aspiring rabbi, is even more of a straight arrow than he is. But Leon’s brother Yosef (Justin Bartha), a black sheep who watches porn and wears a Rolex of uncertain provenance, sweet-talks the two into flying to Amsterdam to help out with his medicine importation business. Yes, the viewer sees through this ruse immediately; the “special medicine” Yosef entrusts to Sam and Leon is ecstasy, and they’re being recruited as mules on the assumption that their Hasidic garb will place them beyond suspicion. (Yosef’s advice as they make their way toward customs: “Relax, mind your business, and act Jewish.”) The script, however, manages to convince us that Sam and Leon are too unworldly to realize what they’re carrying till they’ve made it back to the United States safely.
The horrified Leon retreats to the world of the shul and the synagogue, but Sam (who excelled at haggling in his father’s fabric shop) discovers he has an aptitude for the MDMA importation biz. He and Yosef join up with a shady Israeli businessman, Jackie (Danny Abeckaser), and start shuttling back and forth between Amsterdam and New York, stopping off for the odd rave with Jackie’s girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor.)
Graynor, the Angie Dickinson lookalike who nearly walked away with Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, is this movie’s revelation. (Well, Eisenberg is fabulous too, but we already knew about him.) As Rachel, a secular Jewish gangster’s moll with a taste for hedonistic pursuits, she’s both brash and tender; in her tentative love scenes with Eisenberg, the acting is so fine it inadvertently serves to point up the relative banality of the dialogue.
Jesse Eisenberg has been unusually smart about building his acting résumé since debuting at the age of 19 in Roger Dodger. (After appearing in Adventureland and Zombieland last year, Eisenberg has three movies opening this month alone: Holy Rollers, The Living Wake, and Solitary Man.) He always seems to choose roles that showcase both his boyish sweetness and his deadpan humor—and now that he’s been cast as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s upcoming The Social Network, he’ll get the chance to play a villain as well. (Please tell me Mark Zuckerberg will be that movie’s villain.)
Eisenberg is a wonderfully present performer who really listens to his fellow actors, and his characters’ motivations always dwell close to the surface. This role doesn’t deviate far from the soft-spoken, virginal nerd he’s played so many times before. But there’s a newfound gravitas in Sam’s often unsuccessful struggle to reconcile duty and pleasure, faith and ambition—a struggle that deserves more attention and space than this wisp of a film allows.