Holy Rollers, the movie about Hasidic ecstasy smugglers that opened last week, is a reasonably good film that could have been a great one. Let’s start with my second contention: Holy Rollers could have been great because the true story it’s based on—the fact that much of the ecstasy circulating around New York City in the late ’90s was supplied by an Israeli mobster who hired ultra-Orthodox young men from Brooklyn as trans-Atlantic drug mules—is cinematic gold. Can you imagine what Tarantino or Scorsese or David Simon could have done with a cast that included not only the aforementioned black-hatters and Israeli drug kingpins but also ravers, feds, and rival drug cartels of varying ethnic origin?
All of these elements do appear in Holy Rollers, but their colors are muted and their interactions are half-hearted. Director Kevin Asch chose to go the gentle-coming-of-age story route, focusing on the journey of Jesse Eisenberg’s Sam Gold, a (fictional) 20-year-old straight outta Brooklyn who journeys from restless yeshiva bocher to naïve-but-eager smuggler to minor-league gangsta, until his own soul brings him down (well, and then the cops do). Eisenberg is totally cute in payes, but he basically plays the role as though Sam were any sweet, angsty white kid instead of one from a very specific cultural location.
I’m not objecting to Asch’s decision (which he acknowledged in a Q-and-A after a recent screening of the film in New York) to invent his own hybrid ultra-Orthodox sect, although others have. That seems within the realm of poetic license to me. The problem is that the sect he made up is not particularly convincing. Sam and his friends speak a stereotyped New-York-Jewish-ese with a few extra Yiddish words ostentatiously thrown in, not the complex varieties of Yinglish that are actually spoken in Brooklyn’s Hasidic enclaves. And interactions in his community, from a meeting with a reproachful rabbi to an awkward parentally-supervised date, similarly feel like they were lifted out of the secular world and airbrushed with Hasid dust.
Things feel a little sharper once Sam enters the underworld: Justin Bartha as Yosef, the neighborhood’s bad apple, and Danny Abeckaser as the operation’s mastermind do a good job at capturing the film’s most interesting insight: That staffing a crime ring with extraordinarily sheltered kids is a brilliant tactic that contains the seeds of its own destruction, because once those kids get good at their jobs, they’ll lose the artless innocence that made them such good patsies to begin with.
“Relax, and act Jewish,” Yosef tells Sam the first time he prepares to get on a plane with thousands of “medicine” pills under his hat. But when is Sam acting Jewish? When he bumbles past airport security in black hat and black coat, as unaware of just what he is carrying as the federal agents were? Or is it later, when he emerges as a brilliant young businessman who knows exactly what he is doing?