Film review: 'Holy Rollers' is just another predictable drug tale

Published: Thursday, Aug. 12 2010 3:00 p.m. MDT

Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Justin Bartha star in "Holy Rollers."

First Independent Pictures

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HOLY ROLLERS — ★★ — Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha; rated R (profanity, drugs, vulgarity, brief sex); theater listings

We've seen "Holy Rollers," seemingly dozens of times before. This crime drama is yet another predictable take on the true-life, drug-trade tale.

The supposed variation this time is that the alleged "true story" involves a handful of Hasidic Jews, rather than the usual suspects.

But it feels more like a character novelty than anything else, and this potentially unique material is not really explored to its fullest.

Not even some solid performances by the leads can really make this watchable or distinguish the film from other like-minded ones. This is familiar, by-the-numbers stuff. And as such, it doesn't really work as a cautionary tale — assuming that's what the filmmakers were going for.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Sam Gold, a New York City rabbinical student.

Sam and his family are living in near-poverty conditions, and he's getting tired of it. A neighbor, Yosef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha), persuades Sam to join him as a "runner."

Working for local "entrepreneur" Jackie Solomon (Danny A. Abeckaser), Yosef smuggles ecstasy pills to the United States from Amsterdam.

When Sam finds out what this new "job" really entails, he's horrified and then conflicted. After all, he's suddenly got more money than he can possibly spend.

First-time filmmaker Kevin Asch and screenwriter Antonio Macia paint this picture in drab, dour tones. This is to be expected, since it's not a happy story, but even a little bit of lightness might have helped with the tedium.

Their star, Eisenberg ("Zombieland"), is a likable presence. But as his character is written, we're not entirely convinced of his transformation from wide-eyed-innocent to calculating player.

And as he was in the "National Treasure" movies, Bartha is a scene-stealer. Frankly, we'd much rather see more of the shadier Yosef and learn more about how he got into this business.

"Holy Rollers" is rated R and features strong sexual language (profanity, crude slang and other suggestive talk and references); drug content, including usage and references (hallucinogens and narcotics); brief sex (mostly overheard); derogatory language and slurs (some based on ethnicity and religious beliefs, others based on sexual orientation); brief female nudity (seen on a television screen); and brief violence (a pair of scuffles). Running time: 89 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com

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