Kevin Asch’s Holy Rollers is based on the true story of a smuggling ring in which Orthodox Jews were hired as couriers to bring ecstasy into America from Amsterdam—the logic being that no customs agent would give them a second glance, much less any hassle. It would be easy to imagine the plot being played as a broad, goofy comedy, particularly considering the cutesy title they’ve given it. So the surprise is what a thoughtful, weighty picture Asch has made, and how skillfully he’s done it; he (and screenwriter Antonio Macia) take these characters and their situation seriously, and the film is better for it.
The time is 1998, and the protagonist is Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), a devout Jew who lives with his parents in Brooklyn and works in Manhattan as an assistant to his tailor father. But his family is struggling, and when his arranged marriage is dissolved due to lack of funds, he’s a perfect mark for unruly Josef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha). Josef approaches him offering big money for “importing medicine from Europe”; it’s only after the job is done that he finds out exactly what his cargo was. He is ashamed and repulsed at first, but slowly drawn in to the scheme—not only for the money, but for the feeling of belonging and worth that he gets from Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), the smooth operator who runs the business, and Jackie’s sexbomb girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor). So he’s got a good thing going—for a while.
Macia’s screenplay and Asch’s smooth direction are tip-top; the confined, cocooned world of these characters is laid out skillfully, with a sense that we’re peeking behind a curtain, so we don’t feel the plot going into motion because we’re distracted (and fascinated) by the details. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of its portrait of Orthodox life, but it feels authentic, like it’s a story told from the inside out. The film’s construction is smooth and professional—the scenes lay out cleanly, the reveals are well staggered, and the entire endeavor is paced just right.
Eisenberg has caught a bit of a bad rap over the last couple of years, unfairly pegged as Michael Cera-lite, but he shows admirable depth and range here—he’s completely believable as the Hebrew-speaking young man of faith who is pulled into a life of crime with more ease than he’d have thought. Bartha, an actor who tends to fade into the background (he was the groom in The Hangover), is electrifying—he’s given more edge to work with than usual, and plays it up. Abeckasar’s Jackie is perhaps the film’s most complex character, the no-nonsense businessman who is also tenuously hanging on to his Jewish roots, calling his mother on Shabbat and showing proper courtesy to Sam’s father while simultaneously orchestrating the exploitative operation; he’s quite good as well. And the charismatic Graynor (so good as the drunk, lost friend in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is terrific, a sensuous, ripe forbidden fruit that comes to personify all of the temptations available to poor Sam.
His conflicts—both internal and external—are fairly easy to see coming, though observing them through the prism of Sam’s faltering faith gives the picture a fresh, thoughtful spin. His activities aren’t just scary because they’re illegal (though Asch doesn’t downplay that element either—their first entrance back into the States is a nerve-racking sequence); the filmmakers don’t shy away from the complexities and moral implications of the faithful young man going deeper into the darkness. The picture’s ending is a bit too abrupt—I’m all for leaving the audience wanting more, but we’re left to infer too much, and cutting to the “what happened next” title cards always plays like the lazy way out. No matter; Holy Rollers is an unexpectedly thoughtful and involving film with more on its mind than you might expect.
"Holy Rollers" opens Friday, May 21 in limited release.