Sunday, June 20, 2010
Holy Rollers (2010) dir. Kevin Asch
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Danny A. Abeckaser, Ari Graynor and Mark Ivanir
By Greg Klymkiw
As I watched "Holy Rollers" unspool, I really wanted it to be a movie I would love (or at least like). Based on the 1998 real-life case of seemingly devout Hasidic Jews smuggling Ecstasy into America on behalf of Israeli drug lords, the picture had all the makings of being a gritty, low-budget Scorsese-like crime picture with the dichotomy of faith and crime driving it forward.
As the picture progresses, however, it ambles far too frequently and bears one of the more ubiquitous hallmarks of machine-tooled independent American movies. "Holy Rollers" seems to detest mainstream filmmaking so much, it forgets there are clear and simple cinematic storytelling techniques that it could have employed to tell a fascinating tale with the kind of crank to knock it right out of the park.
Alas, director Kevin Asch keeps everything so annoyingly muted that the slow burn at the beginning of the movie loses all effectiveness as the picture - especially given the subject matter - demands a steady mounting of tension and dollops of real suspense. This never happens and this is indeed the main problem with the film.
The movie begins well enough, establishing the character of protagonist Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), the son of Mendel (Mark Ivanir), a garment merchant. Our young hero is being groomed to become a Rabbi and is potentially on the verge of being betrothed to an excellent match for a wife. Sam, however, thinks he is not going to land the young lady in question because he is not rich enough. In fact, he has such fine instincts for business, negotiation and haggling that he even criticizes his father for not making enough money in their store and being too easy with the prices.
When things are looking their bleakest for Sam (and they're not really that bad, he's just young and impulsive), in walks his slightly older pal from next door, Yosef (Justin Bartha), a ne'er do well always on the make. He convinces and recruits Sam to become a mule and smuggle Ecstasy into the U.S. from Amsterdam. The drug is undetectable and Hasidic mules in full Holy garb make for such unsuspecting drug smugglers that they get through customs completely undetected. When Sam meets Yosef's boss Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), an unlikely friendship/mentorship begins. As well, Jackie's moll, the sexy Rachel (Ari Graynor) seems to take a liking to Sam and he, is naturally attracted to her as well.
As Sam gets deeper into the business, the movie should really start moving. It doesn't. It keeps up the deliberate pace and is so bereft of suspense, that one even begins to question whether director Asch was on the right track in the film's first third - that maybe the solid slow burn was just a fluke. Ultimately, I don't think that's the case. Asch's visuals have a consistency to them and he elicits several terrific performances (especially from Eisenberg, the young star of "The Squid and the Whale" and "Zombieland").
One feels, finally, that director Asch is deliberately avoiding any trappings that could be construed as "mainstream".
This, of course, is a huge mistake on his part. All we're left with, finally, is a good story that's told in the dullest manner possible. It's not bad, but it's not particularly good either - a fate worse than being awful.
"Holy Rollers" is currently in national release.