Review by Tom Mimnagh
Stars Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Ari Graynor, Danny Abeckaser, Mark Ivanir, Q-Tip, Jason Fuchs, Bern Cohen,
Mark Ivanir, Charlie Hewson
Written by Antonio Macia
Certification UK 15 | US R
Runtime 89 minutes
Directed by Kevin Asch
Every summer, the cinema tends to be dominated by blockbusters involving superheroes, or giant robots, or some other manner of explosive franchise based movie. So it’s quite refreshing to find something original sandwiched in between those films, and there are not likely to be many more original concepts than a film about Hasidic Jews working as drug mules, in amongst the summer releases.
Holy Rollers tells the story of Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), a Hasidic Jew living in Brooklyn. He is training to be a Rabbi, and working for his father, but after accepting a job offer from Yosef (Justin Bartha), the older brother of his best friend Leon (Jason Fuchs), Sam soon finds himself mixed up in the world of international drug smuggling and is torn between his new found friends/employment and his community. However, as he gets deeper involved, the situation gets more complicated, as do his relationships with his family, the Jewish community, his friends, and Rachel (Ari Graynor), his boss’s girlfriend. It’s an old story (good young man falls under the influence of a bad group, alienates sensible old friends/family, goes too far down the rabbit hole, seeks redemption, ultimately rediscovers his roots), but it feels fresh in this unconventional context.
It’s easy to see why Jesse Eisenberg has been in demand as of late. He once again shows his immense versatility here, slowly transforming from ‘rabbit in the headlights’ into a streetwise drug trafficker. He brings a real sense of warmth to the character, and is incredibly sympathetic, even when he begins to descend into a much darker lifestyle. The supporting cast in the film are also excellent, with solid turns from Mark Ivanir as Sam’s father Mendel, and also Jason Fuchs as Leon, as their relationships with Sam become gradually more and more strained.
However, the real ‘star’ of the Holy Rollers is Justin Bartha as Yosef. He plays the corruptor role to naïve Sam to perfection, slowly reeling him into the murky world he has immersed himself into, only to become jealous when he feels Sam is taking his place, while simultaneously spiralling out of control. Bartha is excellent here, and is virtually unrecognisable as the groom from blockbuster The Hangover, or in fact from anything else he has done so far in his career.
The film does have a few problems, perhaps suffering from being slightly too short. While it aims to be a slow burning drama, it perhaps takes a little too long to really get going, leaving some of the later scenes feeling rushed. Sam and Yosef are fairly well developed, but the other main characters could do with a little more expansion. As such, the relationship between Sam and Rachel never really gets off the ground, and even the faint teases of romance are too few and far between. The complete absence of any chemistry between Eisenberg and Graynor doesn’t help either, but these are fairly small gripes.
Holy Rollers is an engaging and exciting experience, telling an old story and tackling an unusual subject matter from a new and intriguing angle, made even more interesting due its basis in true events. If nothing else this film continues the rise and rise of Jesse Eisenberg, and hopefully will do the same for Justin Bartha after his excellent performance here.