You can dress it up in payos and bekishes, but a gangster movie is still a gangster movie. Holy Rollers takes on those trappings of Hasidic Judaism and more, but at heart it’s the same rise-and-fall story we’ve seen a hundred times; think of it as HasidicFellas.
That’s not necessarily a problem: This formula works for a reason, and these movies stand or fall based on characters, performances and visual style, all of which Holy Rollers delivers reasonably well. Jesse Eisenberg plays a frustrated young Hasid dissatisfied with his world of arranged marriages and preordained career paths, whose seriously lapsed neighbor (Justin Bartha) introduces him to the world of international drug smuggling. Cue the disbelief and naïvete, followed by increasing immersion in the criminal world, growing confidence, cockiness, losing touch with one’s roots and the inevitable comeuppance.
Holy Rollers, based loosely on true events from the 1990s, is always predictable, but Eisenberg carries it well as an unlikely sort of criminal, and director Kevin Asch and screenwriter Antonio Macia give a decent sense of the insularity of the Brooklyn Hasidic community and why a glamorous illicit life of drugs, money and women might be tempting to someone who grew up in it. They don’t reinvent the gangster genre, but the spin they put on it is intriguing enough to make it seem fresh.