Friday, May 21, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Jesse's Double Feature

In a very short time, 26-year old Jesse Eisenberg has become one of the most sought-after actors for both films and stage. Following eye-catching initial turns in Rodger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale, Eisenberg has been featured in such diverse movies as Adventureland, The Hunting Party and Zombieland.

Eisenberg stars in two unique films now playing in New York and LA: Holy Rollers and The Living Wake (he's actually in a third movie opening today, Solitary Man, which I wasn't able to see beforehand). In the fact-based Holy Rollers, Eisenberg plays Sammy Gold, one of several Hasidic Jews who were recruited to smuggle drugs from Europe to NYC by an Israeli dealer in the late 1990's.


Initially believing he is assisting with an important medical mission, Sammy is a well-intentioned if naïve young man being pressured by his orthodox father to become a rabbi. Sammy is horrified when he learns of his true role as a drug mule but is encouraged to "Just think of it as a game." Having tasted forbidden fruit and liking the lifestyle, he continues to do the work and impresses the boss although his relationships with his family and community members begin to suffer.

Not quite Scarface with phylacteries, Holy Rollers — to its credit — respects the dignity of conservative Judaism and its adherents. However, there's little in the film apart from its characters' religious lifestyle that we haven't seen before. Eisenberg has pretty much the same conflicted look on his face throughout the film no matter what Sammy is experiencing at the moment.

The script's best scenes are those shared by Sammy and his father, Mendel (Mark Ivanir). By the film's end, Sammy has learned the hard way the truth of his father's lesson, "Judaism is about community; it's about looking outside of oneself." A compassionate coda illustrates the value of staying on the divine path.


Decidedly less reality-based than Holy Rollers but an out-of-the-blue delight is Sol Tryon's The Living Wake. In it, Mike O'Connell (who also co-wrote) assays the offbeat role of K. Roth Binew, a questionably-sane failed writer who is informed by his doctor of the date and precise time of Binew's impending death from a symptom-free, unnamed "deadly but vague" disease. With the help of his best friend/manservant, Mills (Eisenberg), Binew prepares a wake for his family and friends to celebrate his memory before he dies.

There's just one problem: no one apart from Mills really likes the off-putting Binew. This isn't hard to understand, since Binew proudly confesses his incestuous feelings for his mother and is prone to admissions such as this one: "I drink to bring myself down to the level of the common man. But remember: the common man drinks, so I must drink twice as much. I'm a big advocate of a level playing field." I won't be surprised if some viewers find Binew grating, to say the least, as well.


As played by O'Connell with a certain Roddy McDowall-esque charm, though, I found Binew to be inspiring and damn funny in his lack of a psychological/vocal filter. He also sings two clever songs by film's end. Eisenberg gets a tune too, and is charming in his unquestioning devotion, going so far as peddling Binew around town in a rickshaw. Eisenberg's character, Mills, and the relationship between him and Binew reminded me of some of Charles Dickens' male pairings, such as Nicholas Nickleby and the simple-minded Smike.

By the end of The Living Wake, I wanted to be counted among the friends of K. Roth Binew. If his longing for "a brief but powerful monologue" from his long-deceased father doesn't win you over, perhaps Binew's performance of a scene from his unproduced, one-woman show will!

UPDATE: Holly Rollers and The Living Wake are now available on DVD from Amazon.com.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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