- Rated R
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All photos © First Independent Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t’s one thing to have a great idea for a movie, but it’s an entirely different thing to successfully execute it. That seems to happen more often than not in the film industry these days, and first-time director Kevin Asch’s new drama, “Holy Rollers,” is no exception. Despite arriving at Sundance earlier this year as one of the more high-profile films in competition, “Holy Rollers” failed to connect with audiences, and it’s easy to see why. Though its one-line pitch – Hasidic Jews as drug mules – is certainly fascinating, there’s nothing particularly engaging about the material. Drug smuggling is supposed to be a dangerous profession, but for the characters in “Holy Rollers,” it feels more like a chore – much like watching the movie itself.
Set in New York City in 1998, Jesse Eisenberg stars as Sam Gold, a young Hasid who blindly follows the path that his father has chosen for him – including marrying a girl he doesn’t know and studying to become a Rabbi – even though he’s not entirely sure he wants that life. When his neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha) offers him a job transporting “medicine” to Europe, Sam becomes entangled in an international drug ring smuggling ecstasy from New York to Amsterdam for an Israeli dealer named Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser). As his part in the business grows and he spirals even deeper into his new lifestyle, Sam is ostracized by his family and the rest of the Jewish community, forcing him to decide between the allure of money and God.
Though the movie is inspired by actual events (a fact that Asch withholds until the very end), it’s hard to imagine that it was developed with the help of anyone involved. The whole thing feels incredibly flat, as if screenwriter Antonio Marca read a news article on the subject one day and just fabricated an entire story around it, fudging the rest of the details as he went along. None of the characters feel like real people, and as a result, you never really care about what happens to any of them. Subplots are introduced never to be visited again, and Sam comes across a little too naïve for someone who's supposed to be smart. Not even Jesse Eisenberg or Justin Bartha can rise above the mediocre script, which is a shame, because both actors are usually pretty dependable.
Marca’s script may be seriously lacking in originality (which is a bit ironic considering just how unusual the real-life story is), but Asch is to blame for many of the film’s shortcomings, particularly in his failure to inject any suspense or excitement into the story. Crime dramas are supposed to have a sense of danger to them, and yet you’re never once worried about what’s going to happen to Sam or any of his clueless recruits. The culture clash of dropping Hasidic Jews into the drug-fueled rave scene does make for a few interesting moments, but the rest of the film is so dull that even its 89-minute runtime feels long. “Holy Rollers” might have worked better as a black comedy, but as a serious take on the subject matter, it never fulfills the potential of its unique premise.