"Holy Rollers" undone by conventional storytelling

Wed Jan 27, 2010 8:52pm EST

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PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - With a narrative based on news accounts about Hasidic Jews smuggling ecstasy into the U.S. from Europe during the '90s, "Holy Rollers" squanders a fascinating premise with predictable execution.

Representing considerable marketing challenges for theatrical distribution, Kevin Asch's feature debut appears destined primarily for the festival circuit and potential DVD play.

It's 1998 and in yet another underdog coming-of-age role, Jesse Eisenberg plays Sam Gold, a 20-year-old Brooklyn Hasid who works in his father's (Mark Ivanir) fabric shop while preparing to become a rabbi and marry the daughter of a well-off family. Ambivalent about his chosen path, Gold offers a ready target for his best friend Leon's (Jason Fuchs) brother Yosef (Justin Bartha), a nontraditional Orthodox neighbor who smokes and wears a flashy Rolex.

Yosef is a recruiter for Israeli drug dealer Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), who employs young Hasids to smuggle ecstasy into the U.S. from Europe under the pretense of supplying rich clients with life-saving medicine. Sam succumbs to the lure of earning some quick, easy money and along with Leon makes a weekend trip to Amsterdam, only discovering afterward that their suitcases contain the drugs.

The revelation causes a rift between Leon and Sam, who decides to continue running drugs for Yosef and Jackie after Leon repudiates the smuggling scheme. Dropping his religious studies, Sam sinks deeper into their underworld, where he's tempted by Jackie's girlfriend, Rachel (Ari Graynor), and experiences a hedonistic lifestyle for the first time. Sam's transformation does not go unnoticed by his community and family, and when his father forces Sam out of the house, he's faced with a difficult choice between the life he's always known and the risky new one opening up to him.

Asch and screenwriter Antonio Macia set up an eminently believable world around Sam in the Orthodox section of Brooklyn, lingering on details of family life, Hanukah observances and religious rites. However, they neglect to give their central character sufficient motivation to enter the drug trade -- Sam isn't particularly avaricious, and his solidly middle-class family doesn't lack for essential comforts.

Eisenberg competently establishes Sam's character at the outset, but his shift from observant Hasid to efficient drug runner lacks conviction. Bartha pulls his performance off with more success, polishing the role of Yosef with lingering instability and menace, though the script never pushes him very close to the edge. Graynor and Abeckaser are adequate in essentially functional roles that could have played more centrally in the narrative.

Asch and director of photography Ben Kutchins open the film with dark color palettes suitable to the somber New York winter location, emphasizing dimly lit settings and low-contrast visuals, but then stick with this approach throughout the film, offering little variation in directorial style.

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