In the warm-hearted, thin-blooded British fantasy Millions, 7-year-old Damian talks to dead Catholic patron saints during their ambiguously real or imagined visitations to his new suburban home and neighborhood. Damian is surprised that one of the saints smokes. Anything is possible in heaven, he is told. And he is soon to learn that just about anything may be possible here on Earth, too.
Director Danny Boyle’s kaleidoscopic filmography has introduced us to celestial visitors (the gun-toting angels of A Life Less Ordinary), visions of the dead (a crib-death victim crawls across a ceiling in Trainspotting), a suitcase full of money (Shallow Grave), greed (The Beach) and stalking threats of violence (28 Days Later). His latest motion picture craftily, and at times very gently, molds all these elements into his first family-oriented film. This is a tricky maneuver that works for the most part when it’s not stumbling over its own huge, thematically ambitious feet.
Millions has a PG rating (the most randy moment has Damian and his 9-year-old brother, Anthony, ogling bra models on the Internet and discussing the purpose and attraction of nipples), but Boyle has not abandoned the cinematic verve and black humor that have become his trademark. He just imbues them with a sort of reckless playground sensibility. He uses fast-motion to amazing effect (a sequence in which a house sprouts up around the young brothers is quite exhilarating). And having two kids publicly use (or abuse, depending on the elasticity of your own moral code) the death of their mother for sympathy and preferential treatment (“Is it completely honest?” asks Damian. “She’s completely dead isn’t she?” says Anthony) drinks with rascal abandon from a dark well of comic relief that no Disney film has dared sample.
This semi-magical fable (the ending is a real stretch for maybe even the most enraptured audience) begins as the father (James Nesbitt) of Damian (Alex Etel) and Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) attempts to give his family a fresh start after the death of his wife. He moves with his sons to a new suburban community. Damian is treated like an outsider by his classmates and spends much of his free time being jostled by passing trains and reading books in a cardboard fort he builds alongside the nearby railroad tracks.
One day (or, just as appropriately, “once upon a time”) a satchel of money bounces down the tracks and plows through Damian’s fort. The lad shares his newfound wealth with his sibling. Damian wants to give this “gift from God” to the poor and looks to his envisioned saints for guidance. Anthony is more concerned with being heavily taxed by the government and investing the money either in real estate or in a savings account while shelling out just enough to his classmates to become a sort of school-recess godfather. Their misadventures grow more and more chaotic as a lone stranger lurks ominously in the wings and as the date approaches in which the British pounds they possess will become worthless by acceptance of the Euro.
Etel is charming and not a bit syrupy as the freckled cherub who basically is looking for a humanitarian torch to bear, like the one lit in 1984 by knighted Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof (who organized the first rock-culture-sponsored famine-relief fund), but doesn’t know how to proceed. McGibbon is credible as the pragmatic brother without the overused Hollywood crutch of being numbingly precocious. And Nesbitt (Bloody Sunday and Waking Ned Divine) has a well-modulated glint of leftover boyhood in him.
Millions is about the kinetic characteristic of money (“One moment it’s there, and the next minute it’s gone”), life in heaven (“It’s down here that you have to make an effort,” says one saint) and one-liner philosophy (“Money makes it harder to see what’s what”). It conjugates a version of the loaves-and-fishes miracle from the Bible and, even with its flaws, turns out to be a minor miracle itself.