Between 1998 and 1999, a small drug ring staffed by Hasidic Jews out of Brooklyn imported over a million ecstasy pills into the U.S., a tale fictionalized by Holy Rollers that provides a fascinating glimpse into a cloistered culture even as it conforms to a rather stale narrative mold. Frustrated by his father’s (Mark Ivanir) devout asceticism, epitomized by a family stove whose knobs can only be turned with pliers, as well as the orthodox man’s lack of business ambition, Sam (Jesse Eisenberg) befriends his rebellious neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha), who employs the naïve Sam to travel to Amsterdam to bring back medicine that, it soon turns out, is shipments of ecstasy. Though this illicit scheme repulses Jacob’s brother Leon (Jason Fuchs), it increasingly entices Sam, who views it as a means of not only fulfilling his desire for wealth, but also of revolting against his mother and father’s traditional Jewish culture and, indirectly, the woman whom he was arranged to marry until her family chose the more pious Leon instead.
Director Kevin Asch so thoroughly enmeshes one in his Hasidic Brooklyn milieu—the Torah studies, the challah and wine enjoyed at Shabbat dinners, the prayers and rules that govern parent-child and male-female relations—that his film initially counterbalances its plot’s banality by focusing on particulars. Eisenberg and Bartha both ably contribute in this respect, with the former bringing a sense of reasonably profound spiritual and ethical crisis to Sam’s conflicted feelings over spurning his heritage for the lascivious life. Still, as its protagonist is promoted from drug mule to respected member of the smuggling business run by Yosef’s Israeli boss Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), whose alluring blonde girlfriend (Ari Graynor) becomes an almost-irresistible temptation to Sam, Holy Rollers assumes a rather safe, predictable outline, one in which the red-colored clubs (hell!), narcoticized nights on the town, and anger from Dad point only in one direction. Despite a fine sense of place, an underplayed lead performance, and a stereotype-rebutting morale in which the Jewish community decries monetary avarice, the film’s conservative outlook, one in which Sam is punished for abandoning God in favor of earthly material concerns, is ultimately complemented by equally conventional storytelling.