Hirschberg has a lot of potential should he be given a full-sized budget and a capable writing partner.
Even when the result isn’t a cinematic slam dunk, there’s always something thrilling about watching a micro-budget film made by a close circle of friends. The restless energy and sense of camaraderie bubbling beneath the production can be fascinating all by itself. In writer/director/producer/star Bryce Hirschberg’s Counterfeiters, the finished product leaves something to be desired, but it’s a surprisingly entertaining ride.
Hirschberg stars as Bridger, a young man who works at a nightclub and cares for his sick mother. When her cancer comes back from remission and there’s no way to pay for her treatment, he devises a DIY method of counterfeiting money with a group of his unscrupulous friends. Bridger isn’t out to be a kingpin or to get rich. He just wants to make money on the sly to provide for his mom and not get caught. But his associates lack such discipline, each in their own way overstepping the bounds of their model operation. Ultimately, their recklessness turns his life tumultuous, with cops on his tail, terrifying drug lords on his back and paranoia ravaging his nerves.
The story isn’t particularly original, but the way it’s told feels fresh. Hirschberg is a charmer, coming off like a Fisher Stevens cloning experiment that accidentally made him a heartthrob, and he keeps the film realistic: The principal cast largely behaves like regular ass people. There’s artifice to the interactions, to be sure, and exposition isn’t exactly handled with the greatest of ease. Bridger and his friends feel believable, but enhanced. It’ll sound like a diss, but at times Counterfeiters has the tone and slick, digital sheen of an MTV reality show that just happens to follow a criminal enterprise, “Jersey Shore” for the film noir set.
When characters disagree, they don’t speak in crisp, writerly double entendres filled with foreshadowing and dread; they bicker like angry bros in a club, with familiarity and half-laughter masquerading severe conflict. The fact that most of the film takes place on a boat lends itself to the high-concept world of reality television, but the relative inexperience of many of the performers is effectively masked because they seem like average 20-somethings caught up in a fictitious crime scheme.
The cast’s believability is a boon, but the intricacies of Bridger’s operation strain credulity. Bridger’s entire plan is based around the idea of only counterfeiting small bills that no one bothers to check, specifically with bleaching one dollar bills and reprinting them as twenties. But anyone who works anywhere in customer service in 2018 knows that this is a big gamble and that more and more establishments make their cashiers check twenties all day.
It sounds like a nitpick, and if this was only introduced early on and then not focused on again, it would be easier to ignore, but throughout the movie, the core premise is repeated so many times that it’s difficult to pretend Bridger is some kind of counterfeiting genius and not just really cocky, which goes against how he is otherwise portrayed. But the shakiness of their operation is less a dramatic issue than the film’s structure.
Once we meet Bridger and learn about his mother’s situation, the film jumps ahead to the point where his operation is successful and his partners have started to exhibit problematic behavior, like trying to deposit the fake money into banks, buying expensive cars and doing cocaine. In a film with such a lean running time, it’s laudable that Hirschberg wanted to get to the fireworks factory as early as possible, but by robbing the audience of the opportunity to see him form this crew, develop their formula and become successful in the first place, we’re missing an important element to this brand of crime movie.
It feels like a prologue and a prolonged third act, with no establishing of character and plot and no rise to prominence to lend the fall from grace real credence. Seeing as how Counterfeiters began its life as a short film, this truncated structure makes perfect sense, but a more fleshed-out version of this narrative would have been considerably more functional. As it stands, it’s a fun, brisk romp that doesn’t take itself as seriously as some of its terminally stiff film festival brethren. It’s a scrappy, little underdog of a picture that works well as a calling card for Hirschberg, who has a lot of potential should he be given a full-sized budget and a capable writing partner.