Directed by Kevin Asch
South Williamsburg circa 1998: Before gentrifying hipster hordes, the Hasids' enemy came from within: namely, from the latent covetousness of appropriately named Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg channeling Michael Cera), a floundering rabbi in training whose thoroughly lapsed neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha, being funny for once) recruited him (true story) to be an international drug runner. Well-situated within its milieu—accents are mostly spot-on, Southside location shooting is bleak and gritty, the Golds' sparse home, with its broken stove, looks as chilly as it apparently feels—the appeal of Holy Rollers relies on the provocation of setting an endearing and quite funny, but ultimately very conventional rags-to-riches drug narrative (a less violent version of Scarface, Blow, or New Jack City) in such an extreme and incongruous setting.
And this is precisely why Sam and his upstanding friend and foil Leon (Jason Fuchs), Yosef's younger brother, are recruited in the first place: nobody would suspect naÏve young Orthodox Jews of smuggling ecstasy by the suitcase-full. Indeed, at first, the naÏve 20-year-old Orthodox Jews don't suspect that the "medicine" in their suitcases might not be legal. Only upon their first safe passage back to New York after picking up in Amsterdam, a journey repeated with slight variations throughout the film, do they realize what they've done. Leon, scared straight, goes back to his studies to become a rabbi and marries the girl who seemed promised to Sam earlier. The latter, seduced by the money, responsibility and, eventually, permissiveness of the club drug culture he's stumbled into, becomes progressively more alienated from his family and community, and increasingly instrumental to the smuggling operation.
This drug narrative doubles as an exaggerated and accelerated coming of age story. The sheltered, awkward, at times charmingly mumbly Sam—or "Sammy" as everyone calls him, furthering his infantilization—goes through various awakenings (cultural, economic, sexual) during his various initiation rites with Yosef, their boss Jackie (Danny Abeckaser) and his main squeeze Rachel (Ari Graynor). These include his first drink, kiss and ecstasy trip (all with Rachel), his first fight and driving lesson (with Yosef), his first new wardrobe (from Jackie) and many beautifully lit, fuzzily focused nights out in Amsterdam.
Debut filmmaker Kevin Asch and cinematographer Ben Kutchins shoot such nocturnal sequences in floating long-takes that seem magical against the hard-edged bluntness of the daytime scenes. This visual contrast casts scenes by day in an unpleasantly sharp light at first, an intriguing effect that wears off as it's frequently repeated. The film is shorter than 90 minutes yet often redundant; one wishes that parts of Sammy's predictable set-up had been scrapped so we might watch his fall and eventual redemption. Instead, his stint as a federal informant figures as a title card epilogue, the most difficult part of his awakening barely begun before cutting to the credits. Just as it gains momentum, Holy Rollers comes abruptly to a rest.
Opens May 21