Holy Rollers, which was made before The Social Network propelled Jesse Eisenberg to global stardom, is an odd little film. Shot in eighteen days for under a million dollars, it stars two high-profile actors – Eisenberg and Justin Bartha (National Treasure, The Hangover) and relates a story which, despite its relatively solid basis in fact, has been largely forgotten. It wavers and wobbles like a sufganiyah (that’s an Israeli jelly doughnut, natch), but this is a broadly competent and enjoyable film with a standout lead performance.
Sam (Eisenberg) has his whole life mapped out – he’ll work in his father’s fabric shop until he becomes a rabbi, marry the girl that’s been chosen for him and then provide for her as she churns out as many babies as her womb can stand. Such is the life of an observant Hasid – and Sam, who lives in a tight-knit Jewish community in New York City, is the definition of observant. However, his ambition and desire to better his social situation is at odds with the philosophy of his father, who is happy to undercharge his demanding customers and suffer with a stove which can only be turned on with a pair of pliers. It never occurs to Sam to step away from his spiritual and cultural heritage, but he yearns for the opportunity to make something more of himself.
Such an opportunity is presented when Sam’s rebellious next door neighbour Yosef (Bartha) tells him about the lucrative sideline with which he’s become involved – importing “medicine for rich people” from Europe to the States. Sam persuades his parents that he’s actually visiting a rabbi in Atlantic City, and jets off to Amsterdam with Yosef’s brother Leon (Jason Fuchs) – his trip is less glamorous than he expected, but he’s well paid and never suspects that the ‘medicine’ he’s carrying is actually high-grade MDMA. Once the true nature of the boys’ cargo becomes apparent Leon quits the job in disgust, but Sam can’t bear to give up his new income; as he grows more embroiled in the high-stakes life of his new colleagues and steadily more estranged from his family, he must decide just how important his background really is.
I saw about half of Holy Rollers eight months ago, and then, for some reason, paused it half way through and promptly lost the disc. I almost wish I’d never bothered to see the second half. Holy Rollers begins superbly, with Sam’s insular little world brought to life as effortlessly and convincingly as is the character of Sam himself. It almost goes without saying that Jesse Eisenberg is superb – Sam’s self-confidence, bolstered by his faith, is eroded as he is forced into alien (and – gasp! – non-Jewish) situations, only to be rebuilt with an altogether brasher and more unpleasant arrogance as he finds his feet in this strange new world. Justin Bartha’s Yosef, who as an increasingly secular Jew with little interest in his community is constantly a few steps ahead of Sam, is likewise well-constructed and genuinely believable.
Unfortunately, that’s where the realism ends. In between filler shots of what I have since found out is a spectacularly inaccurate portrayal of modern Hasidic life, the other characters are given no room to grow or find their feet; it feels like Sam is moving through a world of indistinct ciphers, none of them quite fleshed out enough to be real people. The plot is pacey and captivating, the script is brilliant (“Lots of cool Jews here. There’s a goy, but ignore him… God does”, sneers Yosef when leaving Sam at a raucous party), but everything feels a bit too rushed – it’s impossible to give a shit about the fact that Leon’s marrying a girl we saw in one scene forty-five minutes ago, even if it looks like the impending nuptials are ripping Sam’s heart out.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad film – it’s just not a great one, which is a shame because it so nearly could have been. The switches between Sam’s drab background and the glamorous double life with which he’s never quite comfortable are exciting and superbly stitched together, and with perhaps another twenty minutes and some more character development Holy Rollers could have been truly memorable. Wait for the DVD.