'Holy Rollers' can't get past rise-and-fall formula

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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"Holy Rollers" depicts a world the majority of us have never visited - the insular existence of Brooklyn's Hasidic Jews - only to wind up following the same rise-and-fall formula we've seen countless times before.

But the film does allow Jesse Eisenberg to put a new spin on the brainy-but-sweetly-awkward shtick he's perfected in movies like "The Squid and the Whale" and "Adventureland." Here, it feels like he's really acting - and he's really a grown-up - for the first time.

"Holy Rollers" depicts a world the majority of us have never visited - the insular existence of Brooklyn's Hasidic Jews - only to wind up following the same rise-and-fall formula we've seen countless times before.

But the film does allow Jesse Eisenberg to put a new spin on the brainy-but-sweetly-awkward shtick he's perfected in movies like "The Squid and the Whale" and "Adventureland." Here, it feels like he's really acting - and he's really a grown-up - for the first time.

Inspired by the true story of Orthodox Jews who functioned as drug mules in the late 1990s, smuggling a million ecstasy pills into the United States from Europe, this first feature from director Kevin Asch offers some strong performances and a vivid sense of place with its synagogues and modest homes. And the first time Eisenberg's character, Sam Gold, meets the young woman he's been arranged to marry, it'll make you laugh and squirm simultaneously. Everyone's had a disastrous first date; few are as excruciating as this one.

But this is the quiet, respectable life that's been determined for him: a wife from a decent family, kids (she wants eight) and a career as a rabbi. Soon, though, she finds a match from a family of higher social status, and Sam finds himself intrigued by the brash flashiness of his next-door neighbour, Yosef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha, the bachelor from "The Hangover"). We know Yosef is cool - and probably trouble - because he smokes and drops a lot of F-bombs. Not exactly proper Orthodox behaviour.

You can see his self-destruction coming from a mile away - long before he gets in over his head with an Israeli drug cartel - in the script from Antonio Macia. And yet Yosef is charismatic and undeniably magnetic, for Sam and for us, so it's hard not to get dragged along for this wild ride. At the same time, Yosef conducts his life in a way that deviates so vastly from convention that we have to wonder, was he ever observant? Did something happen that prompted him to break from tradition? We never find out. There is a bit of a vicarious thrill watching Sam lose his inhibitions and enjoy life as he starts wearing hipper clothes, attending all-night raves and, eventually, sampling the product. Still, we know that despite his rebellion, the stern words of his proud father (Mark Ivanir, dignified and intense) ultimately will win out. Guess the party has to end sometime. It's just obvious how this one's going to end from the start.

Two stars out of four

Geographic location: Brooklyn, United States, Europe

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