Damn you, Joel and Ethan Coen.
Damn you for proving that a semi-mainstream film can be rigorously, intellectually and unapologetically Jewish without fetishizing the religion or sacrificing an iota of humor or drama.
Perhaps if "A Serious Man" hadn't been my favorite film of 2009, I wouldn't have been so disappointed by the hollowness and superficiality of Kevin Asch's "Holy Rollers," which had its premiere on Monday (Jan. 25) at the Sundance Film Festival.
With its easily encapsulated premise -- It's "Jew Jack City"! It's "How Chai"! If you're ultra-Yiddish, it's "Alterclockers"! -- and young stars like Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha and Ari Graynor, "Holy Rollers" may be just different enough to attract distribution and deferential reviews.
Me, I kept thinking that given how unlikely it is that we'll ever be treated to another movie about drug-dealing Hasidic Jews, "Holy Rollers" is a missed opportunity.
[Full review of "Holy Rollers" after the break...]
Jesse Eisenberg plays Sam Gold, a young Orthodox Jew whose future seems to be out of his hands. He'll either become a rabbi or work at his father's haberdashery. He's been pushed in the direction of an arranged marriage where the number of children and their eventual yeshiva school are already decided. For Sam, very little is in his control and it's all a manner of faith.
When his somewhat worldlier neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha) gives him the chance to make a little extra money "importing medicine from Europe," Sam rarely hesitates. He rarely hesitates as he becomes more and more involved in an Ecstacy-smuggling operation run by an Israeli businessman (Danny A. Abeckaser) and more and more intrigued by Rachel (Ari Graynor), a secular Jew whose lone character trait is "hotness."
Asch's film, written by Antonio Macia, has a running time of less than 90 minutes and, at that length, it feels gutted, particularly in the area of character nuance.
Although Sam and Yosef are neighbors, nothing in their interactions suggests that they'd ever met before the start of the movie.
We know that Sam is almost impossibly passive and disconnected, but no context is provided to show how he came to be a blank slate even by the standards of this insular culture. And while we can see Sam begin to change as his involvement in the drug trade increases, it's a culturally stereotypical dead end that his character's strengths are limited to bookkeeping and to negotiating better prices with foreign suppliers. It's as if he sacrificed spiritual Judaism to become a different kind of caricature. The arc that leads him away from his faith unfolds properly, but the arc that inevitably leads him to consider returning (that's not a spoiler) is rushed and unconvincing. Without enough understandable points on his journey, Eisenberg has no way of selling the last third of the movie.
Bartha gets the showy part as the rebellious Hasid, but the gaps in his character -- How did he get to this point? What's his own spiritual life? How dangerously over-extended is he? -- hamper the multi-dimensionality of the performance.
The relationship between Sam and Rachel feels lifted from the Penny-William dynamic in "Almost Famous," only Rachel didn't come from anywhere and she isn't going anywhere. She's just the sexy blonde we assume will eventually deflower or defile Sam, but her character has no role in the drama of the movie.
[The only other casting note of interest is the presence of Eisenberg's sister Hallie "Pepsi Girl" Eisenberg as Sam's sister.]
"Holy Rollers" is set in the late '90s and it's based very slightly on a true story. The authenticity is enhanced by some of the details that Asch and Macia obviously get right. The colors and textures of 1998 New York City feel accurate, as do some of the snippets of Yiddish and Hebrew in the dialogue. There's a definite specificity to any movie that features its lead character laying tefillin, even if I found myself musing on whether the lead actors' payot (forelocks, for the goyim) were just extensions.
The superficial gestures are all right, but the movie reduces the actual Jewish spirituality to one or two quick midrashim delivered by a rabbi with a long white beard and a thick Eastern European accent. It's exactly the sort of cryptic and impenetrable Talmudic wisdom that the Coens both revere and parody in "A Serious Man." There's no religious hook powerful enough for viewers to understand what Sam is straying from, nor to appreciate the comfort I might desire to return to. "Holy Rollers" probably doesn't have enough Jewish-specific content to alienate non-Jewish audiences, nor does it have enough to educate or enlighten.
If the Jewish aspect of "Holy Rollers" peaks early and becomes a MacGuffin, the drug-dealing side of things is even more generic. There are a couple trips to Amsterdam (shot mostly in New York) and several nightclub scenes with colored lights and techno. Asch doesn't want that side of the plot to be exploitative, but he also doesn't want to build set pieces around either action or suspense. He never really feel like Sam's going to get into serious trouble, nor that there are likely to be consequences -- legal or spiritual -- to anything he's doing. That means there aren't definitive stakes for either his body or his soul and thus no tension.
There are enough gaps in character and narrative that I wonder if Asch shot a longer and more layered film, but decided that a shorter version would be easier to sell here at Sundance. From there, I also wonder if a smart distributor might pick "Holy Rollers" up and encourage Asch to restore that footage and the depth to the film. For now, it's a punchline -- Is "Hebrew Jack City" funnier than "Jew Jack City"? -- but I could imagine it being something more.