By Michael Fox
Sam Gold, the fuzz-cheeked Ecstasy smuggler in the period drama “Holy Rollers,” is a “pisher” next to Jewish criminals Bugsy Siegel and Bernie Madoff. But the Brooklyn yeshiva bucher’s wages-of-sin saga evokes some interesting parallels with those infamous scoundrels.
Neither a big dreamer nor a smooth talker when we meet him, 20-year-old Sam turns out to have a talent for business as well as a latent cocky streak. Initially overjoyed to have survived and made enough from his first illicit trip to replace the beat-up family stove, in a few short months he’s aggressively challenging his boss’s authority. Bugsy also thought he was smarter than his chiefs, and we all know how his career panned out.
Kevin Asch’s tense yet bloodless feature debut revisits a brief period in 1998 and 1999 when secular Jews used Hasidic recruits to transport drugs from Amsterdam to New York. The Hasids’ reputation for honesty, and their participation in Manhattan’s diamond trade (necessitating regular trips to Amsterdam), allowed them to pass through customs without provoking suspicion.
There’s no pressing reason or relevance to examine this sliver of true crime today, especially as Asch has nothing fresh or cogent to say about the age-old tugs-of-war between spirituality and materialism, tradition and modernity, and religion and secularism. What is intriguing, though, is that Sam’s sense of invincibility, and his willingness to exploit unwitting Jews, foreshadow Bernie Madoff’s pathological behavior on a much smaller and less damaging scale.
As “Holy Rollers” begins, Sam (an innocent-looking Jesse Eisenberg, complete with payess — sidelocks) is a polite, unassuming scholar on track to meet and marry an arranged bride. His loving family is proud that he’s potential rabbi material, even though that won’t help their struggling finances.
A hitch in the plan freaks Sam out at the prospect of joining his less-than-ambitious father in his struggling fabrics shop. Approached at a vulnerable moment by his bad-seed next-door neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha), Sam is susceptible to a singularly vague job offer.
Yosef is the most street-smart and entertaining character in the picture, with his white Converses and ever-present cigarette providing a jarring contrast to his Hasidic garb and beard. Given his rejection of observant Judaism, however, one wonders why he doesn’t shave and get a hip pad in Manhattan.
Then again, nobody has a long-range plan. Yosef and Jackie (Danny Abeckaser), the Israeli-born head of the Ecstasy ring, are simply shallow, fun-loving guys who’ve hit on a moneymaking scheme. Consequently, when they meet suppliers wise to the advantages of carrying automatic weapons and trafficking heroin, they look like tourists who’ve stumbled into Alphabet City.
The story has a familiar arc, albeit without the crime-movie violence that contemporary audiences seemingly crave, although the director aspires to avoid at least some clichés. In practice, what he’s done is populate his atypical milieu with underdeveloped characters whose motivations and goals are frustratingly hazy.
“Holy Rollers” plays at first like a tale of the corruption of an innocent, with red-lit nightclubs and hallways underscoring Sam’s descent into hell. But he evinces so few moral qualms, and becomes so expert at the racket so quickly, that our empathy evaporates. It certainly doesn’t help that Sam veers from naïve to clever to clueless whenever it suits the script.
The only constant is his desire for gelt (his and Yosef’s favorite word), but what drives him remains perpetually unclear. Sam doesn’t buy stuff with his money, or brag about his growing wad. And if he’s rejecting and rebelling against his honest, decent father’s small-potatoes existence, that’s unlikely to win Sam our admiration.
The confusion is only amplified by Sam Gold’s last name, with Asch pilfering a page from David Mamet’s book of nasty, obvious shorthand.
“Holy Rollers” depicts bad Jews, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for the Jews. Perfectly watchable as it unfolds on the screen, it’s too superficial and unmemorable to leave any lasting anti-Jewish impression. If only the same could be said of Bernie Madoff.
“Holy Rollers” opens at Cinema City in Hartford on Friday, May 28.