For the last year it has looked a lot like Jesse Eisenberg (ADVENTURELAND, ZOMBIELAND, SOLITARY MAN) was gaining on Michael Cera in the awkward geeky teenager sweepstakes (next week though SCOTT PILGRAM VS. THE WORLD will likely be a game changer), but this is a welcome change in character and content for the budding actor.
On the surface Eisenberg, as a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn in 1998, seems content with life working with his father and hoping to be approved by his Rabbi for an arranged marriage, but spend a little time with him and he’s clearly an angsty 20 year old going through the motions. His next door neighbor (played with snarky profane charm by Paul Bartha) mentions to Eisenberg that he could make some money transporting “medicine for rich people”, which turns out to be ecstasy, from Amsterdam to New York.
This new choice of career involves a slick but shady Israeli dealer (Danny A. Abeckaser), his way too flirty girlfriend (Ari Graynor), and a set of rules about how to handle going through customs – #1 of which is “act Jewish.” Because of Eisenberg’s strict religious attire including a large black hat, dark brown cloak, and his curly sidelocks left long (called ‘payes’) he is unlikely to be searched by airport security and this ploy works well enough that his trips become routine.
However, it’s not just his traditional clothing that wins over his boss. Abeckaser takes a shine to Eisenberg quickly because of his business sense which is well displayed in a nervy drug costs negotiation scene with rapper Q-Tip.
Bartha’s brother and Eisenberg’s friend, Jason Fuchs, meanwhile, who went on their first trip but backed off from joining the operation when the dreaded word “drugs” was said, marries the woman Eisenberg was pining for and seems to be the source of rumors spread around their neighborhood.
There are the obligatory spiraling-down-into-the-darkness druggie sequences with flashing rave lights and supposedly scary chemical induced craziness, but this film is grounded firmly in its narrative. Not that it’s in the same class, but memories of Martin Scorsese’s early work can be felt, such as the secular struggles of Harvey Keitel in WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? and MEAN STREETS.
The same thematic of religious practice versus thug life/drug life echoes through the tension filled final third of HOLY ROLLERS. The characters in this tale of Hasidic Jews as drug mules are composites based on the participants of the real small drug ring that imported over a million ecstasy pills into New York in the late ‘90s.
The formula in which drugs equals riches and fun for the first half, then a second half of drug equaling paranoia, death or incarceration may be a bit burned out, but this is still a concise (89 min.) and compelling film.
In this promising directorial debut from Kevin Asch, Eisenberg is showing that he is starting to drop some of the tics and overly broad mannerisms and really act. Michael Cera may have won many more hearts with his stilted shtick (and again maybe more next week in SCOTT PILGRAM), but Eisenberg, with this solid indie and with THE SOCIAL NETWORK coming this fall is poised to get plenty of runoff.