Someone asked me once, “When will the world grow tired of Jesse Eisenberg?” I replied (this being right after the release of Zombieland) that Eisenberg has shown himself capable of reinventing the same character time and time again. And that ability will maintain lead to longevity. Like Michael Cera — to whom he’s constantly compared, unfortunately — he shouldn’t have a problem delivering that same character successfully for years to come.
That is, unless he runs into an uninspired story such as the one behind Holy Rollers, from debut director Kevin Asch. Eisenberg plays Sam, a Hasidic Jew living in Brooklyn who is lured away from his devout path to become a Rabbi to become an ecstasy smuggler for an Israeli drug runner. He is lured by a neighbor named Yosef, played by Justin Bartha. Down the rabbit hole goes Sam, deep into the world of international drug trafficking.
It’s your classic culture clash story, where an insulated youth rebels against the will of his father and his faith and falls into a world where his life begins to unravel. Eisenberg is perfect for this kind of roll, as he’s best when he looks panicked, confused or stoically frightened. He’s in perfect balance throughout the film with Bartha despite their lack of on-screen chemistry, as Bartha’s character is a wild child, and is completely wrapped up in not only the drug trade, but the drugs themselves.
This would all be well and good, if the movie itself didn’t feel so formulaic and uninspired. There is sporadic, choppy camera work — including a series of frantic cuts that are inexplicable and serve to take the audience right out of the film — narrative “downtime” in big chunks and a whole host of character moments that don’t do anything to propel the story. At one point, Sam strikes up a relationship of sorts with the girlfriend of his drug boss (played by Ari Graynor). Despite some advances on both sides, the relationship never goes anywhere and ultimately seems glossed over. There was more story there, perhaps, but we aren’t seeing it.
In the end, Holy Rollers — which is based on a true story — fails to make any compelling statement about its core theme, which is that of opposing ideologies. The culture clashes make for a few humorous moments, but at no point does the audience have a chance to connect to the audience. And it has nothing to do with the fact that the film focuses on the Hasidic culture. The story they are telling is a universal one — forsaking family and faith and unraveling ones life, only to later learn a lesson. That story is there, but it has never been delivered in such a lifeless fashion. To be frank, the movie never finds life and succeeds only in being (for lack of a better word) boring.
If you need further evidence as to how uninspired this movie was, consider this: I made it through an entire review without one joke. It draws a sigh, a whimper and a desire to move on to my next Sundance film.