Peddlers of Ecstasy
Holy Rollers (2010)
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha
Director: Kevin Asch
Imagine a film about American football in which players use not the familiar oval-ish pigskin but the black and white pentagon-patterned soccer ball. Or a film about American Indians in which the characters wear Muslim headdresses. Or a film about American senators wearing togas à la the ancient Romans. That’s what it feels like to watch “Holy Rollers,” a film about supposedly-Hasidic teenagers smuggling ecstasy from Amsterdam to New York, except that these kids seem nothing like Hasidim. The garb and the mannerisms are so skewed towards caricature that they seem lifted – sloppily, unimaginatively – from other film depictions of Orthodox Jews. The dialogue is peppered with pseudo-Yiddishisms that seems inspired by someone’s vague recollection of their secular Yiddish-speaking grandparents.
The film’s producers acknowledged that they created their own reality in depicting Hasidic life. To Hasidim, that is frustrating to hear, offensive even. One would think that in a place like New York – where much of “Holy Rollers” was filmed – a film producer would find a Hasid or two to consult with, except the producers of this film couldn’t seem to be bothered.
There are times, it should be said, when an accurate portrayal of a film’s cultural setting is not of overriding importance. Accuracies are only relevant to the degree that they matter to the story. If the audience has never seen a real-life American football game, then the shape of the ball may not matter. Similarly, if the audience doesn’t know or care if a Hasidic mother would ever call her son “Sam’eleh” (she wouldn’t; he wouldn’t be named “Sam” to begin with), or whether otherwise English-speaking Hasidim really replace the word money with gelt as if it were some sacred word (they don’t), or if Hasidim really use the phrase “Baruch Hashem” in place of hello, goodbye, and how are you? (they don’t, although it may seem like they do) then, well, one can’t blame the filmmaker for not caring either. A filmmaker has a single overarching task: to entertain viewers for the length of the film, to make them laugh, cry, or simply intrigued enough to keep watching. It is precisely there that “Holy Rollers” fails.
If this were a film about, say, a group of preppy New England college kids, the story would be an entirely different one. The story is about Hasidim because, ostensibly, the Hasidic lifestyle matters to the story. Sam (Jesse Eisenberg), a young Hasid on the verge of getting engaged (there’s the obligatory b’show scene, of course, where Sam and his prospective bride discuss whether to have five children or eight), is persuaded by an elder cousin to work for Jackie, a local kingpin-wannabe, in the drug smuggling business. “You’ll be bringing medicine for rich people,” Sam’s cousin tells him. Eventually, Sam learns the truth about the contents of his suitcases, but by then, seduced by opportunities for easy money, he finds himself torn between the life he stumbled upon and the one he left behind. On the one hand there are parties, girls, money, and good times. On the other there is faith, tradition, family, and community. The problem is that, as far as the audience is concerned, the dilemma doesn’t seem all that complicated, and its solution seems a no-brainer. Essentially, Sam has to choose between, say: a) an awkward meeting with a strange girl at the other end of the sofa, versus b) a life of hot girls throwing their svelte bodies and luscious lips at him with abandon. Or he has to choose between: a) life as a schoolteacher for religious boys, or b) all-expense-paid trips to Amsterdam. I know which of these I would choose.
What we don’t see are some of the real reasons a Hasid would give up all that fun for a dull and constricting life in Hasidic Borough Park. We are meant to believe that Sam has some sort of emotional attachment to his religious and cultural lifestyle, and that it presents a compelling alternative to Sam’s new life. But we seen nothing of it. To heighten the illusion of conflict, the movie gives us a rabbi whose sermons sound vaguely Talmudic but nothing like that of a real-life Hasidic rabbi. Besides, listening to his monotonous droning of religious banalities is almost painful. Granted, not every Hasidic rabbi is an accomplished orator. But neither is he credited with captivating restless teenagers who are ambivalent about their traditions.
I don’t know if the movie’s creators knew any Hasidim personally. More likely, they knew people who knew people who have some vague familiarity with Orthodox Jews. But that would hardly suffice. Hasidic characteristics that are visible to the outside world – weird accents and funny hats and an occasional spotlight in the media – are not those that truly set them apart.
What outsiders often fail to understand is that the Hasidic world isn’t for the most part a spiritually compelling one – at least not to the average young Hasid. It isn’t strictly his faith or his traditions that keep him loyal but a fully encapsulated universe, a universe in which the mundane is as profoundly captivating as the ideological. The young Hasid is as concerned with the size and style of his shtreimel, the quality and respectability of his shidduch, his first car purchase, and future real-estate deals as he is with religious values. He takes more immediate pleasure in the cholent and kugel at the Shabbos morning kiddush than in the Shabbos morning services. A Hasid in twenty-first century Brooklyn doesn’t live the Hasidic lifestyle because it’s the right thing to do; he lives it – for the most part – because his attachment to it is so deep in so many complex ways that the idea of leaving it behind seems more trouble than it’s worth. It is that attachment that we fail to see in “Holy Rollers,” and it is why, ultimately, the film delivers little by way of emotional impact.
I believe that accuracy in film is important. Many of us would feel let down if we discovered that “The Sopranos” veers wildly from real-life mafia culture. Or if a period piece of Victorian England got the costumes horribly wrong. Sure, not too many people would know the difference, but we’d feel cheated if we were among those who did. Ultimately, though, accuracy isn’t an overarching concern to the viewer. “Fiddler on the Roof” delights us even if we suspect it doesn’t faithfully depict turn-of-the-twentieth-century life in a Russian shtetl. “Gladiator” captivates us even if Romans didn’t speak British-accented English. “Analyze This” makes us laugh even when we know that Robert De Niro’s buffoonish Paul Vitti resembles no real-life no mafia don. But when accuracy is central to a film’s purpose – and by accuracy I mean not the hats or the accents but the real contours of a Hasid’s attachment to his world – then that accuracy can’t be dispensed with. If it is, it doesn’t only disappoint Hasidim, it disappoints all viewers, and the result is, simply put, a bad film.Printable Version