April, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Danny Boyle

Starring:Alexander Nathan Etel and Lewis McGibbon

Adult audiences have little sympathy for stories with an unabashed moral viewpoint, especially when the genre employed seems ill-suited to the task. We're so committed to science and rationalism in our contemporary culture that fantasy automatically conjures up the notion "for young audiences only". (Fantasy is perfectly acceptable in science fiction of course, but only because we're all comfortable with the second word in that descriptive couplet.)

It's remarkable then that British director Danny Boyle, responsible for the frenetically hard-edged examination of English drug users in Trainspotting and the chilling depiction of global contamination in 28 Days Later would be responsible for this whimsical fable about the corrupting power of money. With tongue firmly in cheek, (and his camera swooping through wonderfully inventive sets) Boyle traces the impact of hitting the jackpot on two young brothers, about 6 and 10 years old.

Damian and his older brother Anthony have moved with their father, a widower, into a tract house in a new subdivision of a Midlands town which borders the tracks of British Rail. Anthony's an outgoing kid, but his younger sibling, still coping with the loss of his mother, is a dreamer who's fascinated with the histories of Catholic saints. Unable to make new friends at school, he drags some of the cardboard boxes used in the move to a vacant lot and builds a playhouse so close to the track it shakes when trains go roaring past. One day while he's holed up in his lair conversing with saints of ages past, a large gym bag sails onto his corrugated roof, flattening a good part of Damien's non-too-sturdy hideout. The bag's stuffed with pounds; over a quarter of a million of them, according to the count made by Anthony after he and Damien have hauled the stash back to the safety of their bedrooms.

Like most children, Anthony's interests don't lie in the heroes of the Church; he's a much more practical fellow though possessed, like his younger sibling, of the ability to sound disconcertingly sophisticated when he quotes exchange rates for sterling and the merits of investing in real estate. Damien believes that God sent the cash and that it should be distributed to the poor; Anthony thinks they've been blessed by Lady Luck and sees the loot as an excellent opportunity to acquire status with his new friends while buying all the luxury items their hard-working Dad can't afford. Besides, as he assures Damien, if they just give it back, the government will take it all in taxes. (The money, it turns out, is part of an elaborate armed robbery of old bills on their way to cancellation as part of a national move to the Euro, providing the director an opportunity to slyly comment on the whole concept of the lack of inherent value in paper currency.) 

But it's the contrast between Anthony and Damien's choices and the underlying values they represent which drive the screenplay; when he can't find anyone who's really poor in his own middleclass neighborhood, Damien worries about kids in Africa who can't get access to potable water; Anthony scans catalogues for expense cameras, motor-scooters and two-way telephones while bribing his classmates for rides to school and special treatment in the cafeteria. He's thrilled by the sheer satisfaction of lording it over his less affluent mates and browbeats Damien whenever the latter takes some of the money to express his more generous impulses. Generosity, Anthony warns, is conspicuous; excess consumption alerts no one, because everyone does it. Boyle uses Frank Cottrell Boyce's delightful screenplay to gently but insistently raise the fundamental moral question of the proper use of excess resources in a world beset by appalling global privation.

In laying out this troubling question, the director's dead-pan approach works perfectly; Anthony and Damien look and sound like typical boys--until they're called upon to articulate the merits of their respective points of view on the proper uses of their new-found wealth. Then they sound as though they're participating in an Oxford debate or arguing about the merits of foreign aid or "redistribution of income" at a cocktail party. The fatuous justifications Anthony makes for more consumption and less charity will make many wince in self-recognition. 

Boyle's sets and art direction create an atmosphere of idyllic suburban existence; every house is perfectly constructed, the boy's school is a model of modern child-centered design and Damien's view of the world is as meticulously presented as the one Jim Carey wandered through in The Truman Show. Even the fantasy works; the saintly visits Damien receives from his heavenly heroes are delicious send-ups; an 11th century nun, now the patron saint of television who enjoys lighting up the odd "joint" on her return visits to earth, a cranky St. Peter who complains about his lack of access to God and a decrepit but merry St. Nick who helps Damien stuff cash through front-door mail slots. (Each is introduced by the credulous Damien, who provides a brief biography which includes that saint's lifespan as well as the contemporary profession to which their special protection is now attached. Piety has never been so charmingly and devastatingly presented).

Unfortunately, Boyle isn't nearly as accomplished in resolving the moral quandary he so gleefully presents. One of the train robbers shows up looking for the missing swag, at which point the film shifts focus; to protect themselves, the boys tell their father what's going on and the plot then concentrates on thwarting the menacing crook while preserving the money's purchasing power before the conversion deadline. Dad and his new girl friend conspire to find "a middle way" between Damien's altruism and Anthony's blatant consumerism, but it lacks the sharp clarity of film's first half. The final fadeout returns to Damien's high-minded point of view, but undercuts it with an aura of embarrassingly contrived utopianism at sharp odds with all that has preceded it. 

Despite its pedestrian denouement, Millions combines a pair of charming performances from its youthful leads with a trenchant examination of first world consumerism in the midst of third world destitution, all wrapped up in a style pulsating with consistently exciting visual energy. Had Boyle possessed the strength of his original convictions, Millions could have been a minor masterpiece; as is, the first half--coupled with the director's ability to visualize a vulnerable child's appealing lack of self-interest--make this one more than worth the price of admission.       

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