Playing much like My Name Is Asher Lev if Asher had taken up pills instead of painting, Holy Rollers opens and closes with a Hasidic rabbi's Shabbat sermon: "All men must answer this. They must know where they stand in relation to Hashem's presence," the black-hatted leader says, using the Hebrew euphemism for God. "Either you move closer, or further away." Just a wild guess: Smuggling a million ecstasy tablets into New York from Amsterdam falls into the "further away" camp.
This revelation would seem obvious enough to not make for much of a drama aside from the obvious novelty, but don't discount the presence of Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland) who has entirely eclipsed his early pigeonholing as the Jewish Michael Cera. For the role of Sam Gold, an Orthodox fabric importer's son who briefly became an aide to a minor drug kingpin, Eisenberg has wisely downplayed the more arrogant edges of his persona—he's an innocent doing the E Street shuffle. His ambition to join the smuggling ring stems less from avarice than from a need to prove his worth through hard work, and it's touching to see him shake his head in automatic resistance to any offer of pleasure, even when saying "no" is no longer an option.
The movie's defining scenes show Sam cutting off his sidelocks—can there be a more blunt symbol of cutting yourself off from faith?—and none of his new associates paying the break any notice. Director Kevin Asch crafts a mood that will be familiar—and shattering—to anyone who has apostatized from a religious community: The guilt, of course, but also the sudden spiritual indigence, the night wandering, and the betrayed longing to go back in time and have that world give you the rewards it promised. In his early work, Paul Schrader trafficked in these feelings, and it's in comparison with "God's lonely man" movies like Taxi Driver where Holy Rollers falters. It's not just that the film too easily accepts the simplistic dichotomy between fundamentalism and crime—just because you kiss a shiksa doesn't mean she's slipping you an illicit drug on her tongue—but that it offers Sam no transcendent moment of unexpected grace. Despite Eisenberg's fine work, this is just a cautionary parable. It will not accept the adult recognition that sometimes, even when you don't know where God is, you gotta move. R.
Opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.