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Ben Austwick [Celluloid 04.08.10] movie review drama

Year: 2010
Directors: Kevin Asch
Writers: Antonio Marcia
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ben Austwick
Rating: 7 out of 10

With the gimmicky premise of drug smuggling Orthodox Jews forming the basis for a rather straightforward gangster movie, it's hard to understand what it is exactly that makes Holy Rollers succeed. A fast paced thriller that never stops long enough to be criticised, it’s simply an enjoyable film, with a subtle central performance from Jesse Eisenberg that reigns in a sometimes heavy-handed script.

Gimmicky they may be, but according to the end credits Holy Rollers' drug smuggling Hasids are based on a true story. How much exactly is hard to tell. In the movie the smuggling ring, headed by secular Jewish gangster Jackie Solomon (played by Danny A Abeckaser) with the back-up of Orthodox Yosef (Justin Bartha), use their connections in the community to persuade Hasidic Jews in full Orthodox dress to smuggle ecstasy from Amsterdam to New York in suitcases, tricking them into thinking they are importing controlled medicine for rich clients. Sam Gold, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is one of the ones fooled into smuggling but embraces the gangster lifestyle once he discovers what is really going on. Like the premise of the film itself, his swift conversion is at once difficult to accept and believably portrayed. All the way through Holy Rollers corny storytelling and assured film making vie with each other to be the dominant trait, neither coming out top.

Sam’s experiences follow a much trodden path, taking in the inevitable but mercifully brief ecstasy club scene, family disapproval, a showdown with his father, a love story, and a well-handled if predictable redemption, all so familiar that Holy Rollers could easily have been a derivative and pointless movie. However, snappy dialogue and a galloping pace just about make up for it, and provide a framework for Jesse Eisenberg’s great interpretation of the wayward, immature but essentially good Sam. Restraint is key to his success, as familiar ideas like the draw of the secular lifestyle to a young man brought up in a strict religious community, and his sexual naivety in the face of an experienced older lover, are touched on with indirect delicacy.

But like the central story, these ideas are still wearily familiar no matter how well handled. The lack of detail about the Orthodox Brooklyn community the story is set in is disappointing, relegating the premise to novelty and missing an opportunity to add some substance to a shallow crime thriller. Thrilling it is though, and Holy Rollers is engaging, watchable and well-made enough to make you forget that you’ve seen it all before.

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