Mark Zuckerberg Is Not the Only Role Jesse Eisenberg Can Play


Safehouse Pictures

Jesse Eisenberg is a busy man. This year alone, he has toplined two features (Holy Rollers and The Social Network) and provided integral supporting work in another (Solitary Man). While Eisenberg will likely earn a best-actor Oscar nomination for portraying Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a tetchy, mildly diabolical genius in The Social Network, the two lesser-seen films, both now available on home video, are worth a look as well.

In Holy Rollers, which gives a conventional international drug-running saga an indie-bona-fides topspin by setting it among Brooklyn Hasidim in the late '90s, Eisenberg channels the same locked-in focus he brought to the role of the knuckle-cracking, monitor-transfixed Zuckerberg to play Sam Gold, a well-meaning 20-year-old torn between his community's cloistered world of tefillin and Torah study and the strobe-pulsing nightlife of Amsterdam. Charismatic but proudly impious next-door neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha) drafts Sam into a "medicine"-transporting operation run by a shifty Israeli (Danny A. Abeckaser); the envelopes of $100 bills and transgressive perks (stolen kisses, hits of Ecstasy) induce Sam to stay in the business, despite the mounting disapproval of his family—and his increasing suspicion that he's in over his head.

Sam goes from apprenticing to become a rabbi to sweet-talking fellow Hasids into becoming unwitting pill mules, capitalizing on the fact that customs officials aren't likely to give the third degree to anyone wearing tzitzit and side curls. At one point, Sam also draws on his experience behind the counter at his father's Lower East Side fabric store to drive a hard bargain with a heavily guarded Ecstasy magnate (Q-Tip). The situation doesn't seem to register with Sam as higher-pressure than any other contact he has with globalized secular life. Sam succeeds as a criminal not because he abandons his ultra-conservative background, but because he starts willingly exploiting it, his sheltered upbringing eventually giving him a kind of fearlessness. Eisenberg's intensity gives the standard rise-and-fall arc of writer-director Kevin Asch's handsome production an extra charge.

There's no talk of a Hashem-like higher power in Solitary Man, about an aging snake who is constitutionally unable to think outside himself. Written by Brian Koppelman and directed by Koppelman and David Levien (who together wrote two Steven Soderbergh larks, Ocean's Thirteen and The Girlfriend Experience), the film boasts a showy performance by Michael Douglas as Ben Kalmen, a hotshot car salesman come down in the world. Douglas embarks on a number of compelling monologues, defending his indefensible behavior with the body-language brio of a motivational speaker, but the film seems so enamored of its main narcissist that it can't be bothered to sketch the world around him in convincing detail.

Even if he's ultimately little more than a device, Eisenberg acquits himself well as Chester, whom Ben meets while taking his girlfriend's daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots), on a tour of his prestigious alma mater. (Ben later seduces Allyson, prompting his college-town exile from moneyed Manhattan.) Chester becomes a sort of protégé to the backslapping Ben, who takes advantage of the undergrad as a standing invitation to campus parties. As the vaguely "alternative" Chester, Eisenberg is asked to sport overwhelming amounts of corduroy and to cringe-inducingly extol the benefits of program housing (his dorm: "Eclectic House"), but the role offers a nice counterpoint to that of Zuckerberg, a much less earnestly outgoing neurotic. To anyone who complains that since The Squid and the Whale Eisenberg has always only played his motor-mouthed self, I would recommend a double feature of The Social Network and Solitary Man, films in which the actor offers polar-opposite portraits of post-adolescence.