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Until watching "Holy Rollers," it had been years since I thought about what a religion professor, appropriately enough here, told my prerequisite class years ago. In his dense, old-world Brooklyn accent textured in and around the same neighborhoods featured in this movie, he said "if you walk away from a movie without reconsidering long-held ideas or finding yourself changed in even to a small degree, you're probably just wasting your time."
Don't get me wrong, I unabashedly love a good robot apocalypse and seeing Rob Schneider slip in dog poop as much as the next guy, but when a movie falls in your lap about Hasidism and drug smuggling, it's time to start loosening up your eyebrows for a good raise or two. Unfortunately, "Holy Rollers" fails to stimulate, but if you're looking for a fun time at the movies, you could do a lot worse than this little indie flick.
It's a coming-of-age piece about Ben Gold (a surprisingly understated Jesse Eisenberg), an agonizingly shy 20-year old in a Jewish Orthodox neighborhood, studying to be a rabbi, freshly rejected from an upcoming arranged marriage.
It's a culture-clash movie about the disparity between his familiar, devout community and the neon hedonism of Amsterdam.
And it's a crime thriller about the unassuming Ben — payos (side curls), black hat and all — muling Ecstasy into the states. All of this unexpected mayhem comes about due to Ben's next-door neighbor, Yosef (Justin Bartha, the sun-stroked groom of "The Hangover"), a porn-loving, cokeheaded, chain-smoking Goofus to our main guy's Gallant.
To boot, the story's based on a true story, set during the late '90s MDMA boom. And the characters in the movie? You can thank those inconspicuous, real-life hustlers for a ton of wild parties probably even in far-removed Arkansas after they managed to smuggle in over a million pills of Ecstasy in only six months. That's a lot of drugs, a lot of excitement and a movie-worthy sum by any count. But in spite of it all, "Rollers" never quite takes off the way you want it to.
Like the bulk of its other contemporary, hedonist, "based on true events" cautionary tales ("Party Monster," "21"), this promising film leaves you just entertained enough but ultimately unnourished, with more questions about the eccentric source material than newfound insights about the characters behind it. It's a fantastic premise, ripe with opportunity to explore issues of faith and hedonism, devotion and inhibition, nature and nurture — with fun, high sexiness throughout — but first-time director Kevin Asch never bothers to ask any questions, so no answers are ever given. And the fun, high sexiness on screen just comes off as a typical Saturday night at an OK club.
Not to kvetch too much about the movie's lack of introspection: I'll admit the movie's an altogether good time, jarring the viewer back and forth from Ben's family house and synagogue — both filmed in the gorgeous, blacks and golden browns of Gordon Wills' Corleone compound — to Manhattan basement parties and Dutch red-light districts. Jesse Eisenberg's discreet performance was at once skillfully charmless and totally sympathetic which, by the end, got the ol' heartstrings moving during his inevitable (and, yeah, formulaic) fall from grace.