Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriters: Frank Stars
Starring: Alex Etel, James Nesbitt, Daisy Donovan
Millions could have been a horrid morality play of a family film, with impeccably innocent kids pitted against cartoonishly black-hearted adults, with good triumphing over evil in the end, but not before several painfully extended sequences of slapstick comedy. It could have been produced by Revolution Studios, with Spencer Breslin as the boy who receives the unexpected windfall, and Jon Voight as the bank-robbing mastermind who dispatches his henchmen to retrieve the missing cash at all costs. Pratfalls, preaching and pandering could have ensued.
That’s a decent guess at what would have happened had Joe Roth gotten ahold of this concept and run with it. But Millions isn’t even an American film, never mind a Hollywood film, and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) is not interested in making another Blank Check. As conceived by him and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (Code 46), it is probably too oblique to be aimed squarely at children, though most should be able to enjoy it on a basic level, and big kids should relish it. Instead of providing a low-brow distraction and trying to teach boilerplate “lessons,” the movie questions, probes, explores. It is the most challenging “family entertainment” you are likely to find.
The film’s whimsical tone has led people to compare it to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. But unlike Amelie, the “whimsy” in Millions does not consist of lovable quirkiness, and does not have “cute” as its sole intention. The tone not only advances the story, but comes to have a certain power when little Damian Cunningham (Alexander Nathan Etel) comes to realize that his conceptions of good and evil, and right and wrong, don’t necessarily reconcile with the world’s, and those of the people he loves. The movie intentionally embroils us in a childlike fantasy to make Damian’s naively pure worldview plausible, and to render the moral revelations powerful when they come.
Boyle and Boyce make the controversial decision to blend fantasy and reality to the point where the difference between what is in Damian’s imagination and what is actually “there” becomes indistinguishable, and perhaps irrelevant. In fact, save one passing reference to something being “a dream,” there is little evidence that any of Damian’s visions — usually consisting of various saints appearing to him in person — are any less than real; it is simply an assumption we make based on the tone and structure of the film. The boy’s voiceover narration, in which he claims to be manipulating the story in order to make it play out the way he wants, further confuses the issue.
I wonder whether it matters. Is it imperative that the events of the film take place in the world we know? The movie attempts an actual explanation of how that bag of money came crashing down upon Damian’s cardboard fort, but other things happen that are clearly impossible, and Boyle never bats an eye. Emotionally, Millions may have been stronger had it stayed on this earth, or perhaps if it had left entirely, but it is hard to fault the filmmakers for this undeniably interesting choice.
Egghead concerns aside, Millions is a pretty terrific specimen, with an impressive debut performance by Alexander Nathan Etel, and a miraculous musical score by John Murphy. I could have done without the 11th hour appearance by a certain dead parent (I was reminded of the French film Ponette, which also took its protagonist through an intense ordeal of grief only to have the object of said grief appear at the end of the film), but all told, Boyle navigates this tricky, morally ambiguous material with uncommon confidence.