Here’s a true story set in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community you never expected to see. Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland) is Sam Gold, a young Hasid who’d like to help his poor family rise above their economic situation. He winds up with a fallen Hasid who recruits him to smuggle Ecstasy from Europe because his religious background makes him an unlikely customs target.
Holy Rollers is at its best as it probes Hasidic life. In those moments, it offers promise that it’ll be more than just a typical rise-and-fall crime story. Unfortunately, underneath the surface dressing, it follows just such a story beat for beat. It’s not a bad for what it is, but it’s not as interesting as the set up seems to promise.
Luckily, Eisenberg delivers a fresh take on his “sensitive and intelligent awkward guy” persona which has at times bordered on shtick. Here he helps the audience jump the believability gap as his character not only turns to a life of crime, but also shows a strong head for criminal business.
Justin Bartha is even better as the Hasidic neighbor who has already turned to the dark side and leads Sam into a life of crime. Bartha was wholly unmemorable in last summer’s breakout hit The Hangover, but he brings an edge to Holy Rollers and he’s perfect as a young man who is still trying to straddle two opposite worlds.
The film’s biggest surprise is Ari Graynor (Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) who manages to flesh out and make interesting the character of a drug kingpin’s girlfriend with whom Sam falls in love. The character is a cliché but Graynor makes her likable and human.
Though ultimately the story beats are all too familiar, Holy Rollers nevertheless provides an interesting glimpse into a world with which you’re probably unfamiliar. More importantly it’s a solid showcase for some terrific performances from several young actors. Once you get past the film’s gimmick, they’re the real attraction here and they make Holy Rollers worth seeing.