The public has a fetish for hypocrites. When a celebrity loses her cultural crown, when a self-righteous minister acts contrary to his beliefs, we’re giddy with schadenfreude. We love it when other people fail to live up to their own moral standards.
Though Hasidic Jews don’t have the same cultural cachet as the Amish, their insularity and rigid adherence to a moral code make them just as juicy a target for corruption. In the first five minutes of Holy Rollers, somebody gives us an “oy, vey,” we find out it’s Hanukkah, and we see very clearly that the main character, Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), is concerned with gelt above all else.
Gold, unsatisfied with working for his father in New York’s Garment District, is recruited by an old friend who’s fallen away from Hasidism to smuggle “medicine” from Europe. Gold is naive enough to believe that story at first, but once the truth comes out (they’re smuggling Ecstasy), he’s making too much money to care.
The film does not fall into a lazy “Jews like money” stereotype — in fact, all along the way, Gold is told by his father, his rabbi and his best friend that money is not some magical shortcut to winning at life. The sentiment is welcome, but it doesn’t help the movie get past using Hasidic belief as window dressing.
“Relax, mind your business … and act Jewish” is what Gold is told on that first trip. You see, the pious nature and strange customs of the Hasidim attract less suspicion: if a man’s face is framed by peyot braids, how could he possibly be trafficking in drugs? But that’s the problem: the only way this movie is even remotely about Hasidic Jews is the costumes — which is why Holy Rollers feels more than a little Jewsploitational.
Holy Rollers is a good story, but it loses the point somewhere along the line. The background — the setup, the reason why these characters do what they do — is faded out in favor of the far sexier descent into depravity. Oy, gevalt! Ideas for good trailers don’t necessarily make good movies. (Rated R)