A slight film resting almost too comfortably on the slender shoulders of actor Jesse Eisenberg, Holy Rollers tells a startling, true story about drugs and religion in a manner so respectfully muted, it's hard not to wish first-time director Kevin Asch had tarted it up a little.
Based on a headline-making 1990s scheme in which a New York drug trafficker smuggled Ecstasy into the U.S. using Hasidim as his drug mules, the film centers on a 20-year-old Hasid named Sam (Eisenberg) who is working in his father's Brooklyn fabric shop while somewhat impatiently awaiting his arranged marriage and a rabbinical future.
Observant, ambitious and a genuine innocent when it comes to the world outside New York's Orthodox Jewish community, Sam is frustrated with his father's old-fashioned business practices and looking to better his financial position and make himself a more attractive marital prospect, when he's approached by Yosef (Justin Bartha) about a moneymaking proposition.
Despite their identically traditional clothing and the payis curling down both their cheeks, Yosef is many things Sam is not -- worldly, irreverent, a smoker, a drinker, a swearer and a recruiter for a convivial, vaguely threatening businessman. His job is to find Hasids who'll travel to Amsterdam and bring back "medicine" that's not available in the U.S. -- couriers who won't arouse suspicion and will easily slip past pre-Sept. 11 customs officials.
Sam, reassured by the fact that the businessman is Jewish, takes the gig. The pay is good, the chance at broader horizons attractive, and for $1,000 a trip he's all too willing to look the other way about what he's carrying. As played by Eisenberg, Sam is initially gullible and sweet -- an Orthodox Jewish version of the dweeby, Michael Cera-style misfits the actor's been playing since his Squid and the Whale debut -- but this dweeb's a quick study, and sharp about deal-making.
He's less sharp about the way the world works. The film chronicles how Sam is affected by the comparatively brave choices he makes -- speaking up when he shouldn't, covering up Yosef's side deals, dancing with and then cozying up to the dealer's girlfriend (with whom he can't bring himself to shake hands at their first meeting), any of which might endanger his life in a typical Hollywood film.
Here, though, the drug dealers mostly seem a side issue. With the director painting Brooklyn in Rembrandtian browns and grays and drenching Amsterdam in neon, Sam seems less concerned about dying than about the Orthodox community's reaction to his newfound wealth. It affects his plans for marriage, his relationship with his family, his standing at temple, until he gets in so deep that the neighborhood that's been all he knows closes ranks, ostracizing him.
Eisenberg lets us see Sam's growing distress, and also the fortitude with which he faces down his fears -- few young actors are as adept at simultaneously conveying panic and bravado. But Antonio Macia's screenplay pushes this naif along such a dramatically conventional path, in such schematic bits and snatches, that his progress doesn't generate anywhere near the heat it should. In real life the operation he took part in moved hundreds of thousands of tabs of Ecstasy across the Atlantic. Holy Rollers makes that feat seem not just un-Orthodox, but remarkably routine.