Holy Rollers Movie Review
Spinning a workable yarn out of Hasidic young-adults that become drug traffickers is a more difficult task than you might expect. One of the main roadblocks is simply that I have already explained the entire story to you. Perhaps worse, the “shtick” of the story, that it involves Hasidic Jews, is one that is itself tricky. Anything sufficiently rigid is hard to get audiences to engage with, and if we’re showing characters being pulled by two cultures, it’s a tough road when audiences find they can only relate to the drug dealers.
Sam Gold (Eisenberg) is at a certain coming-of-age point in his life. He is rapidly approaching manhood, and he has an arranged marriage looming to prove it. His parents want him to continue studying to be a Rabbi, but he’d rather keep working in his father’s fabric business. He suspects he can turn a better profit with it, especially because his father generally gives customers any discount they ask for, and he doesn’t see the problem with helping to get more money for his family.
Sam is confronting rather a bit of inner turmoil, and the lack of comforts in the family home is gnawing at him as well. There is something about being able to afford a stove that works that just doesn’t seem evil to him.
One day, Sam notices that neighbor Yosef is wearing a Rolex. Yosef, obviously rather lax in his adherence to the rules of his religious culture, says he has a job that pays well, and he can get Sam some work too.
Sam, actually closer friends with Yosef’s brother Leon, decides to give it a shot, but brings Leon along. It turns out to be an easy gig. Fly to Europe, bring back some “medicine,” and get a wad of cash. They soon learn what they’ve really done, but while Leon is immediately out and feels ashamed, Sam isn’t so sure.
As we follow Sam on the road to getting more and more mixed up in things, it’s easy to wonder why we’re watching. You can’t help it really, because with Eisenberg in the role it would be like turning away from a puppy you expect to get kicked, but you feel you’ve seen it all before. You find there are a lot of unspoken subtleties coming through though, and even if the general play isn’t all that new, there is a lot of clever work going on here.
Sam is unsure what to make of life, and where he is supposed to turn for guidance offers up only the idea that there are really no choices. That may fly for some, and it was probably a lot easier to sell 100 years ago, but Sam can’t make peace with the fact that it doesn’t seem like everything else is wrong. If something inside him demands another option, and all other options are wrong, what difference does it make which one he picks?
Adding to Sam’s confusion, and distance form the world he grew up in, he is rejected as a suitable husband for the girl he was supposed to marry. She instead marries Leon, who is well-respected for his devotion to study, and is seen as an upstanding member of the community. Sam didn’t really know the girl in question, but he was rejected, and that stings. While it goes unspoken, Sam clearly has a bit of trouble with Leon and the holier-than-thou attitude that flows from him and the community at large.
See, Leon lived a good while with Yosef as the only person in the house who made any money at all, apparently even after he knew where the money was coming from. That eats at Sam. Then again, what he’s doing eats at him a bit too.
There’s a surprising amount of everyone that makes its way to the screen, and what seems alienating, even when you’re watching it, ultimately proves rather normal. If it seems “crazy,” you’ll soon see that it isn’t crazier than anything else. When Sam gets a “fix” of Judaism late in the game, most audiences will be able to fit themselves in his world, even if you have to spread analogy rather thin.
A curious examination of a true story, Holy Rollers is built and designed well, even if it feels rather sluggish a good deal of the time. It’s not the best, most inventive, or most interesting trip you’ll take down this road, but it may be the most charming.