When Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), an impressionable Brooklyn Hasid who longs to someday provide for a family of his own, is seduced into the world of drug smuggling in Holy Rollers, it’s shown as a gaudy collection of red-lit nightclubs, sexy women, wads of cash, and glamorously shady characters. Director Kevin Asch’s idea of corruption isn’t exactly subtle. In his feature directing debut, he often overplays his hand, brushing up close to sentimental Afterschool Special territory. A good Jewish boy starts swimming with sharks, gets in over his head — if only he’d listened to his tata. Goodfellas it’s not.
But in its lead performance the film develops psychological dimensions the screenplay often lacks. Jesse Eisenberg, who has been prominent for years but had his breakthrough this month in David Fincher’s The Social Network, has an unassuming quality that lands him a lot of shy, everyman roles, but still waters run deep, and here, as in Network, he shows gradually accumulated anger. He’s resentful of his father for forcing him to work for his lowly textile business, resentful of the family of his prospective wife, whom he was arranged to marry until they suddenly rejected him for another suitor, and resentful of the religious establishment, through which he feels his options are limited. Money isn’t important, his father explains. But if not for money, then why was he turned away?
His neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha) shows him another possibility. He offers Sam a thousand dollars to help him import “medicine” from Europe. He brings along Yosef’s younger brother, and they both believe that the medicine is legitimate, though we get the impression that Sam is only selectively ignorant. He goes along because the money is good and the job is easy: just relax, keep to yourself, and “act Jewish.” Eventually the legality matters less to him than the money and respect it brings. Yosef, as played by Bartha and written by Antonio Macia, hits all the major beats of the Corrupting Influence with scenery-chewing zeal. He flouts tradition, curses, parties, gets cocky and does side deals behind his boss’s back. He’s reckless and charismatic, flying high but destined to fall just as far, the caution of the cautionary tale.
In this moralistic story, I think we’re expected to admire the rest of the Gold family for their virtue and be saddened by Sam’s fall from grace. Rumors spread. His sister tells him that he’s brought them shame. His father Mendel (Mark Ivanir) is heartbroken. But to me, Mendel is less an example of righteousness than he is the rock to Yosef’s hard place. He’s a pillar of the community, honorable, kind, but expects obedience and leaves no room for Sam to have desires of his own. He will join the family business. He will become a rabbi. And he will do nothing that is not in line with this. When Mendel turns away from his son, it’s Sam who elicits my sympathy; the father’s rejection is complete.
Whether or not the father’s domineering quality is entirely intended, it improves the film, making Sam’s story more than a warning about the temptation of sin. It’s a rebellion against a culture he feels alienated from, an expression of ambivalence about his faith. A moving scene shows Sam approached by a fellow Hasid who implores him to pray, and when he does it seems almost like an exhalation, the comfort of ritual amidst the turmoil of his newfound life of crime. This, I think, is the approach the screenplay should have taken throughout: focused more on Sam’s crisis of identity and less on the details of drug-smuggling and the unsavory dealings involved therein.
The film sort of works, though maybe I’m damning with faint praise. Some of its overwrought crime-saga elements are balanced by the performance of its star, who draws out all of the story’s nuance and complexity. Eisenberg, unlike Sam Gold, does good by doing bad. This year, he’s become a star.
Watch a trailer for the film here: