I remember when the Hasidic Ecstasy smuggling ring was cracked back in the late 90s I thought “This is a great idea for a movie.” Well, maybe, maybe not. Holy Rollers is a fictionalized account of the massive smuggling operation that used religious Jews (for the many readers living in Hasidic-free areas, think of them as almost Urban Amish) to bring E from Amsterdam to America in huge quantities. Everything about this seems so unique, so weird, so interesting… so how did it end up just another rise and fall of a drug dealer story, just with a Yiddish accent?

Jesse Eisenberg is Sam, a Hasid studying to be a rabbi, but who is acutely aware of how poor his family is. When he meets the girl who he has been arranged to marry and learns that she wants ten kids, Sam knows that he has to do something to make serious gelt. That something comes to him in the form of his best friend’s older brother; Justin Bartha plays Yosef, a bad boy Hasid who smokes and watches porn on the Sabbath. Yosef works with a very nice Israeli man who does some importing, and he gets Sam mixed right up in it.

At first I thought Holy Rollers was going to bring something new to the drug movie genre. The world of Hasidic Jews is mostly unexplored on film, and having lived in heavily Hasidic areas of Brooklyn I can tell you that these are fascinating people, juggling their strict and outmoded religious laws with living in a modern world. That, at first, is the dilemma Sam must face – remaining kosher in the face of his new, illegal activities. But once Sam begins rising through the ranks from mule to trusted lieutenant, the movie just becomes another drug film. The way Sam’s family reacts really isn’t that different from how any socially conservative family would react. Sam’s slow drift from the accouterments of his Hasidic lifestyle feels weightless. There’s very little conflict in him when it comes to walking this path that could be taking him farther and farther from Hashem (Hebrew for “The Name,” what very religious Jews say instead of “God.” Which they won’t even spell). And that lack of conflict means lack of drama; we know that Sam is going to get busted by the end of the movie – even if you don’t know the true story, you know the conventions of the genre – so the real conflict should be generated inside the character.

In fact the Hasidic component feels like window dressing, like setting a drug running story on the planet Altair IV in the year 2999; the basics of the plot machinations remain the same as just about every other drug kingpin movie. Except, maybe, that the debaucherous excesses of Holy Rollers pale in comparison to those of Scarface - Sam’s big temptation is a hot reformed Jew who dropped out of Hebrew school, and his big crazy moment is taking some E and dancing. 

Eisenberg is very good as Sam Gold, showing that he has acting chops beyond his Michael Ceralized stammering and dweebiness. Sam builds up serious backbone over the course of the movie, and Eisenberg makes him live as a character, despite the script never giving him the necessary internal conflict. Bartha’s fine, but I just never bought him as a Hasid in the first place; he begins the movie like a wisecracking comedy version of a Hasid, and just turns into a sweatsuit wearing Middle Eastotrash figure by the end. The actor most shortchanged is Ari Graynor as Rachel, Sam’s forbidden reform Jew; she’s beautiful and charismatic but her character has nothing going on. She’s mostly arcless.

Holy Rollers features some very nice Brooklyn-based cinematography that really captures the grimy working class nature of neighborhoods like Crown Heights; it made me very homesick. Unfortunately the film is so cheap that it has to fake all the Amsterdam bits (minus some establishing shots that the production probably purchased from somewhere), so the streets of Brooklyn get put out of focus to become the streets of Amsterdam. Maybe if this film gets picked up it can get an infusion of extra cash so extra shots of Eisenberg actually in Amsterdam can be inserted.

That said, maybe some extra comedy could be inserted as well. I appreciate the fact that Holy Rollers writer Antonio Macia doesn’t want to go the standard fish out of water comedy route with this, but director Kevin Asch spends the entire runtime slowly draining the humor from everything. A funny moment will pop up – Q-Tip’s Amsterdam-based E manufacturer character getting schooled on business by expert Jewish haggler Sam Gold is priceless – but Asch makes the mistake of thinking that people want to see a really serious movie about Hasidic drug smugglers. The movie could have had lots of emotion and character moments while also keeping humor going; many Sundance audiences thought the film was a comedy, so they were especially confused and disappointed.

I would have traded comedy for more insight into the world of the Hasidim, though. After A Serious Man it’s not hard to wonder what the Coens would have done with this concept. Something more original, surely.

6.5 out of 10