In truth, I had never heard of the picture "Holy Rollers" but the idea of Jesse Eisenberg as a Hasidic Jew who becomes entrenched in a drug mule operation held an undeniable appeal. And this film is one of those undiscovered little gems--it may not rock your world, but it's a solidly constructed character study based on a real world case. Funny, moving, and suspenseful--I quite enjoyed this film. The depiction of Eisenberg's orthodox upbringing is well served, but his decision to color outside the lines is also believably demonstrated. As he is seduced to the dark side, the transition is well wrought. In fact, I think this is one of Eisenberg's most well rounded performances--one that uses his offbeat mannerisms to good affect.
The story, in and of itself, is undeniably fascinating--it documents a ring of Ecstasy smugglers in the late nineties who transported their wares internationally using the least likely suspects. Justin Bartha colorfully portrays the neighborhood bad boy who eschews the conventional expectations of the Hasidic community. Eisenberg is his neighbor and friend who becomes a bit disillusioned as his life does not seem to be going precisely as planned. When Bartha proposes an opportunity for Eisenberg to score some cash for traveling to Amsterdam, he is reluctant. But after an initial foray into this new venture, he begins to embrace it more and more. The corruption of innocence and the seduction of power are primary themes in this tale of lawlessness. But how far is he willing to go? And is there any way out?
A taut and succinct screenplay maintains the film's momentum as Eisenberg rises in importance. The movie does a great job documenting the real danger of the enterprise and undeniable allure it holds for our young protagonist. Wrestling the classic demons of evil versus good, Eisenberg relates the moral and ethical dilemma with precision. But Bartha also steals just about every scene he's in! Clearly on a path to destruction, he nevertheless maintains a charisma and likability that keeps the film grounded. The film doesn't provide an easy out and everyone must face the consequences of their choices. "Holy Rollers" is quite entertaining and an easy recommendation, but beware of the hyperbole of one critic that is printed on the DVD. Comparing this to "Scarface" or "The Godfather" will set unreasonable expectations. It shares some of the same basic themes, but this small and understated film is much more specific in its tone and modest in its goals! KGHarris, 3/11.