In this compellingly acted but underwritten true-life saga, Sammy Gold (Jesse Eisenberg) is a good Hasidic Jewish boy who works with his father in the garment district. At twenty, Sammy is naive and polite. He's supposed to get married, though the girl switches to somebody else. He may become a rabbi, but he's not sure yet. He looks sweet and adorable in his 'payis'side curls, black suit, and big hat. He has a good head for business and is dissatisfied that his unambitious father would put customer relations so far above profits. Along comes Yosef (Justin Bartha), a neighborhood acquaintance, who's making inexplicable amounts of money and wears a flashy Rolex. "Women like shiny things," he says. He claims he's getting paid a lot just for carrying medicine over from Europe for rich people.
At Yosef's urging, Sammy joins in on a trip and drags along his neighbor Leon (Jason Fuchs). All they have to do is carry suitcases, not look in them or open them for anybody, not look nervous, and act Jewish. Acting Jewish isn't too hard when you're decked out as an orthodox Jew. They go to Amsterdam and return to New York via Brussels and Montreal. The two young men in their black suits and big hats are forced to wait in a brothel hotel in the red light district: their first trip to Amsterdam isn't very glamorous. (Later Sammy comments that he knows Anne Frank's house is here and he's sorry he doesn't get time to visit it.) Leon freaks out at the obvious illegality of the operation on the first trip and quits; he's getting married. But Sammy, whose life hadn't taken shape, continues the lucrative runs and even becomes a semi-partner, looking after the business side and instructing new recruits. What Sammy and the others with him are doing is acting as drug mules and they're bringing the illegal recreational drug "ecstasy" (MDMA) from Amsterdam to New York. Orthodox Jewish garb is perfect cover. Who would suspect such a person? The ringleader is Jackie Soloman (Danny A. Abeckaser), an Israeli. Sammy is charmed by, and partly charms, Jackie's girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor). Though he pretends to be still working for his father, Sammy allows Jackie and his world to dominate his life.
As played by Eisenberg with a nice mixture of lightness and intensity, Sammy, or Shmu'el as his father and the rabbi call him, is a mass of contradictions that come together perfectly to get him into this mess. He's smart but naive, aggressive but shy, aloof but a people-pleaser, a good boy who becomes a willing criminal. The film informs us that between 1998 and 1999, this group of Hasid mules transported over a million ecstasy tablets from Europe to America. The orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn, like that of Jerusalem in 'Eyes Wide Open' -- Haim Tabakman's Israeli tale of an married orthodox butcher who gets involved in a secret homosexual love affair -- is tight and small, and word eventually gets around that Sammy is doing something very, very wrong. His father disowns him and he becomes isolated from family and community. Meanwhile the operation grows too careless and ambitious. New mules are forced to carry heroin, which drug-sniffing dogs can detect, along with the ecstasy. Sammy Gold's world collapses from within and without, and he winds up crying on the steps in Brooklyn next to Leon, begging for help as the police sirens approach.
'Holy Rollers' shows us the Hasidic Jews' world and the dark, flashy, world of the constantly partying drug smugglers, who seem to like sampling their own wares. Eventually Rachel persuades Sammy to try them and swig liquor and dance and kiss her and wear a soft brown cashmere Italian suit. (The young Hasids on the take go around in silly looking white Nikes that Jackie gives them. )
The tricky part is showing how boys from the one world can get lured into the other one. The best moments, because they're when the crossover becomes plausible, are when Sammy talks about the value of making a little more "gelt," or steps in to challenge a black European ecstasy manufacturer who thinks he can both increase production and raise his price. Jesse Eisenberg, who first attracted notice in the 2002 movie 'Roger Dodger' and then in 'The Squid and the Whale,' 'Adventureland' and 'Zombieland,' has a disarmingly pure quality, and it's fun to watch him take on the central role in a sort of action film. Sammy Gold is all jittery, spunky surface. Eisenberg gives him a nervous intensity that's both oddball and appealing. When he kisses Rachel he thanks her after each kiss while trying to pull away. He can act skittish and bold at the same time. He adds a depth that the screenplay hardly allows. 'Holy Rollers' is his vehicle. It will be remembered for his fresh, vivid performance.
The trouble with the movie is that it gets so deep in the back-and-forth spiraling drug-transporting action the moral complexity of the situation goes out the window. Eisenberg's changes of expression and scenes that shift from dark Amsterdam nightclubs and New York raves to Brooklyn row houses bleached out by the cold winter light suggest a world of contradictions the film unfortunately doesn't fully explore.