“Holy Rollers,” a new film based on the true story of a Hasidic ecstasy-smuggling ring in the late 1990s, is not only a bad movie, but also an offensive one. Not because it shows Hasidim doing illegal things (they did them, after all), but because it uses Hasidim as little more than an attention grabbing gimmick.
Indeed, “Holy Rollers,” directed by Kevin Asch and starring the baby-faced Jesse Eisenberg, may get the finer details of drug-muling right, but gets just about everything else wrong. The Hasidim in the movie aren’t like any real-life Hasidim you might meet if you were doing, say, research for a movie about Hasidim. From the way the characters dress (wrong hats) to the fact that they shave (even the ‘good’ ones), to the writer’s and actors’ obvious ignorance of even the most basic aspects of Judaism (Hasidic or otherwise), it’s clear that precious little time or money was spent on getting the details of Hasidic life right.
Harping on such small points may seem petty, but the filmmakers’ complete disregard for accuracy isn’t just about mistaking the finer points of ultra-Orthodox fashion. Rather, it betrays the fact that this isn’t a movie about Hasidim at all — not about Hasidim as they actually exist, anyway. Instead, it’s about the filmmakers’ Hasidic fantasy, which, unsurprisingly, amounts to the usual Jewishy kitsch. Clearly, the point isn’t to present any kind of truth about the Hasidic community, or what happens when it runs up against something like the drug trade, but to offer a casually sensational story predicated on the presumed innocence of boys with peyos. Not a malicious portrayal, exactly, but plenty cheap and condescending.
And it’s not like “Holy Rollers” has much else going for it, either. The odyssey of Eisenberg’s character, Sammy Gold, from Talmud to temptation is trite and all too easy. (A prospective bride dumps him after one date. Big deal.) His estrangement and eventual reconciliation with his family is likewise stale and formulaic. Granted, Sammy’s father (Mark Ivanir) offers one of the film’s more compelling performances, as does Sammy’s ne’er-do-well friend, Yosef (Justin Bartha), but even some half-decent acting can’t save this movie from its more serious flaws.
What makes “Holy Rollers” especially galling is that a successful version of this movie already exists. “Mendy,” a 2003 film, tells almost the same story as “Holy Rollers,” albeit with much more focus on its protagonist’s loss of faith and much less on the whole ecstasy smuggling bit. More important, Israeli writer and director Adam Vardy had the good sense to work with a formerly Hasidic co-writer and to use Hasidic, or formerly Hasidic, actors. While “Mendy” may lack Eisenberg’s star-power, the result is a movie that not only conveys a real Hasidic sensibility, but also deals with the profound issues of faith, family and community in a serious and convincing way. If “Holy Rollers” does any good, it should be to get some attention for this far superior film.
Watch the trailers for ‘Holy Rollers’ and ‘Mendy’:
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.
How 'Holy Rollers' Gets Hasidim Wrong