Hasidic Jews and devotees of designer drugs don’t share much beyond an inclination toward ebullient displays of rapture. Of course, the two sects pursue that goal in antithetical fashions. For Hasidic Jews, it’s spiritual in nature, a result of living in accordance with Hashem’s laws and communing with the holy spirit. Designer-drug aficionados prefer a more chemically induced form of joy. By telling the true story of Hasidic Jews lured into the shadowy nighttime world of ecstasy dealing, the disappointing drama Holy Rollers has an opportunity to comment on the interconnectedness of spiritual and pharmacological rapture, or to mine lively culture-clash comedy from the incongruity of scholarly, devout young men in religious garb mixing with decadent night-clubbers. Instead, director Kevin Asch takes protagonist Jesse Eisenberg on a dour, depressingly straightforward trip from naïveté to spiritual exhaustion.
Ideally cast yet completely wasted, the boyish Eisenberg stars as a serious young man who becomes disillusioned with his Hasidic faith when an arranged marriage falls through, leaving him feeling rejected and alone. So he proves an easy mark when associate Justin Bartha asks him to smuggle “medicine” into the United States. At first, Eisenberg is too naïve to realize the “medicine” is an illegal drug, but he proves a quick study once he realizes the exact nature of his friend’s operation. Using his innate business savvy, Eisenberg rises quickly through the ranks of ecstasy-smugglers. Before long, he’s recruiting drug mules of his own and serving as Bartha’s right-hand man.
Asch’s film never adequately conveys the seductive warmth of the insular, supportive Hasidic community, or the sense of moral certainty that comes with Orthodox faith, so Eisenberg’s descent into a world of drugs, violence, and betrayal lacks resonance. The film comes close to capturing Eisenberg’s powerful internal split only in a riveting scene where he shaves off his telltale payot corkscrews in a frenzied ritual of self-reinvention and self-negation. Otherwise, Holy Rollers gives a fascinating story the low-rent TV-movie treatment. Ecstasy profiteers and Hasidic Jews both deserve better than Asch’s glum slog through their disparate worlds.