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Holy Rollers: The impiety and the Ecstasy

Danny A. Abeckaser and Ari Graynor in a scene from 'Holy Rollers'.

Holy Rollers

  • Directed by Kevin Asch
  • Written by Antonio Macia
  • Starring Jessie Eisenberg and Justin Bartha
  • Classification 14A

"Inspired by a true story," reads the opening credit of Holy Rollers, a movie about a ring of Hassidic Jews who were convicted of smuggling Ecstasy pills into New York in the late 1990s. The true part seems legitimate enough. It's the word "inspired" that raises the problems. Short on insight, either about the puritanical world of the Hassidic community in Brooklyn or the drug-fuelled world of Amsterdam night clubs that makes the second half of the movie, this is essentially an anecdote in search of a meaning.

The movie stars Jessie Eisenberg ( The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland, Zombieland) as Sam Gold, a 20-year-old Hassid from Brooklyn who works at his father's fabric store while studying to be a rabbi. Sam resents his father's passive business style and worries he'll never have enough money to attract a wife. Essentially, this is a variation on the roles we've seen Eisenberg play before - the smart misfit who wavers between bravado and cowardice in his efforts to fit in and impress others.

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Frustrated with his financial prospects, Sam falls easily under the sway of his crafty neighbour, Yosef ( The Hangover's Justin Bartha). Yousef wears the same black hat, clothes and payis (side curls) as Sam, but he's definitely non-traditional. He smokes, drinks, wears a Rolex, watches porn and lusts after Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune. Also, he's a recruiter for an Israeli drug dealer, Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), who is bringing drugs into the U.S. from Europe. He lets Sam know how he can make some money, importing "medicine" for American clients. He doesn't directly say that the trade is illegal but instructs Sam how to go through customs. His conservative religious clothing will be his cover: "Relax, mind your business and act Jewish," Yosef tells him.

Though he's naive and sexually inexperienced, Sam gets the hang of the nightlife very quickly - too quickly, in fact, to be entirely credible. He cuts off his curly sideburns, wears Armani and develops a crush on Jackie's mistress, Rachel, a bad girl with a sweet side who finds him cute as well. While enjoying forbidden fruit, Sam can make enough money to help buy his mother a decent stove.

Though Holy Rollers is a movie about an ethnic sub-culture and crime, don't expect the Jewish version of Scarface here. There's no violence, little suspense and the punishments are relatively minor. As Sam gets deeper into the drug trade, he quickly becomes a family and community embarrassment. The scenes of family conflict are sketchily dramatized. We never get to the place where the two parts of Sam's personality meet - the devoted son and sharp-dealing criminal.

One might have hoped for more, especially from a religious sect that emphasizes mystical joy and fervour, none of which is shown here. For a more entertaining variation on a similar double-life theme, we'll have to wait for the upcoming movie (written by Tina Fey and starring Sacha Baron Cohen) about covert rapper Curly Oxide, another Hassid from Brooklyn who was the subject of a popular 2005 episode of National Public Radio's This American Life.

Otherwise, the grey neighbourhoods where Sam lives are evocatively dull (even the houses look as though they're in clerical garb) and it's easy to see what Sam might want to escape from. What he's escaping to is a little less clear. The claustrophobic Amsterdam club scene with its repetitive music and dazed people looks just as dull, only louder.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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