Boyz in the Shtetl
Like the illicit chemicals they explore, drug films follow a formula. Once in a while, a rarity like Trainspotting comes along that’s spiked with something fresh and exhilarating that blows your mind and cores you to the very soul. But most of the time, it’s pretty much the same assortment of elements brought together in the same generic $4 prescription way getting the job done. Change the color, change the name, change the delivery, but it’s still gonna be the same: an innocent boy (and it’s almost always boys, because apparently girls are only good for being arm candy or laying zonked and spread out on couches) who’s never done drugs suddenly starts selling drugs and slides down the slippery slope into the back of a police car. And that’s the problem with Kevin Asch’s Holy Rollers. It’s an amazing flavor — in 1998 Brooklyn an ecstacy ring starts using Hasidic Jews as drug mules to ship over a million pills from Amsterdam. It’s acted to the hilt, particularly by Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha, but at the core of writer Antonia Macia’s script is just your basic, run-of-the-mill after-school cautionary tale. Only this one gets played in yeshiva.
Based on actual events, our story opens with two young rabbinical scholars, Sammy Gold (Jesse Eisenberg) and his best friend and neighbor Leon Zimmerman (Jason Fuchs), just trying to get by in their Williamsburg hood, yo. The Golds are poor. Dad’s struggling to keep food on the table while Sammy helps him in their family fabric business. They hope by marrying Sammy to a beautiful wealthy young girl, everything will work out. Sammy wants, no NEEDS money, and instead of getting out of the ghetto and going to college or paying for his mom’s operation or taking care of his baby momma, Sammy wants to show those rich nogoodnik’s who reject him as a suitable suitor for their daughter that he’s worth a shekel or two.
Enter Yosef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha), Leon’s older brother, a considerably less than kosher fellow who spends his time smoking cigarettes and watching women jiggle on television. Yosef knows Sammy needs money, so he offers him a job as a courier bringing “medicine for rich people” over from Amsterdam. Sammy brings Leon along, and Yosef is furious. He still goes through with the operation, introducing Leon and Sammy to the seedy underbelly of their ecstasy operation. It’s hard enough when you’re a fish out of water, but these boychicks are rabbi-blessed lox. Leon and Sammy squirm and fidget and leap away from the touch of the scantily-clad schiksas like they’re touch would bring pain. But with everyone’s help, the boys mule the goods, and everyone’s happy. Until they realize what they’ve actually done. Leon’s mortified, but Sammy doesn’t see anything really, really wrong with it. So he joins Yosef and becomes a Hebrew Hustler.
From that point on, we’re on board as we watch Sammy’s decent into depravity. First, just the innocent young, nervous lad with the curly sideburns and the big hat, twitching like Kramer with poison oak at the mere touch of a young woman. He gets in with the shady boss man, Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser). He goes to the clubs with the increasingly more coked-up Yosef. He meets the main supplier — usually played by a once-or-former rapper, in this case Q-Tip. He falls for the boss’s girl Rachel (Ari Graynor), because he thinks he can save her. He falls like Don Draper toppling in the open credits to Mad Men, as you would expect. Shunned by his family, shunned by his friends, he ends up crying on a stoop. And I apologize if people feel like this is a spoiler, but you must be fucking farkakte. That’s not just Holy Rollers — this is how every fucking drug movie ends up, with the lead character sitting on a stoop crying. And then, an R&B song plays. Probably something by Q-Tip.
And yet, with a generic script, Kevin Asch is able to get some excellent performances out of his actors. All the supporting cast manages to be exactly what you’d expect them to be. Mark Ivanir is wonderful as papa Gold, pounding melodramatically on tables and moaning the death of his son’s innocence. Danny Abeckaser plays shifty Jackie with pastrami-greasy aplomb, Ari Graynor is just as good as Kate Hudson’s exact same character from Almost Famous only Jewish and strung out, even Q-Tip’s brief cameo as Ephraim is hilarious, if only for the Billy Crystal-like chutzpah he throws forward. Hell, even Jesse’s little sister Hallie — the former adorable Pepsi girl — springs up as Sammy’s sister Ruth with a virtually unrecognizable (save for the dimples) performance. But as I said, it was the two ostensible leads I loved the most. I dig Justin Bartha as Riley in the National Treasure movies, so to watch him not just chew the scenery but dry hump it foaming at the mouth is fantastic. His character is ridiculous, a bad boy Hasidic Jew, but Bartha goes apeshit with it, and I really thought it was fun to watch. Jesse Eisenberg gets accused of having Michael Cerable Palsy, his body paralyzed in the same version of the shy, stuttering nebbish from role to role. But he’s more like Woody Allen. Sure, Woody always played himself in every movie, but there are subtle nuances. Such is the same nebbishism played by Eisenberg. I understand the criticism, but that’s what acting is about. Sometimes they just want a utility fidgeter, just like if they want a delightfully awkward charmer, they’ll go to Hugh Grant. Squid and the Whale Eisenberg is a world apart from Zombieland Eisenberg, and still shades away from the Eisenberg of Charlie Banks. Well, in Holy Rollers, he’s got the frequency turned up to Kenneth, and it’s kind of amazing. His nebbish is so vibrant; there’s actually painful feedback in his movements and motions. He’s not just playing nervous. There’s actually a palpable ouch associated with his stutter and shuffle. Personally, I felt it was one of his better, if not his best performance.
Which is a shame, because it’s in such a disappointing movie. Extremely orthodox religions and drugs are nothing new. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I’ve always been fascinated with the Amish. The concept of Rumspringa was phenomenal to me — that this group not only advocated a wild child phase of drugs, drinking, sexing, and oat-sowing, but that they actually had a fucking name for it. It was only a matter of time before we heard about Amish drug dealers. While the concept of a Hasidic Jew drug mule is intriguing, it’s not that new. When fused to the bones of a plot, I’d expect to see it as a room in a Hell House — either of the danger of drugs or Judaism — it still doesn’t help no matter how good your performances are.