Danny Boyle is known for his astringent and even gruesome films (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later), but without compromising his style, Boyle shifts into the mind of a child in Millions. The title refers to an athletic bag full of cash that plummets virtually into the lap of seven-year-old Damian Cunningham (Alexander Nathan Etel) as he plays house in a field. Thinking the money was bestowed on him by God, Damian invites his nine-year-old brother Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon) to help him do good with the money.
The hitch is that the money is in pounds sterling, and it's only a week before the UK switches to the euro. In a consistently amusing narration, Damian muses, "Goodbye, old pounds. Everyone says we're going to miss you." With the clock running, the boys discover it's harder than it looks to spend money and harder still to do good with it without causing trouble (the large Nike swoosh on the bag mockingly brings to mind the slogan "Just do it"). Then again, Damian thinks, "Money's just a thing, and things change."
The script by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Code 46) tingles with wit, as in satiric jabs at "community living" (a feckless "community policeman" informs the just-arrived tenants of the new housing development that they're bound to be burgled, "probably this week") and charity work (an R2D2-like robot harangues kids to donate). Boyce pens droll encounters between Damian and the haloed saints he's lovingly studied, among them St. Claire of Assisi (who has a smoke), St. Peter, and St. Nick, who reminds Damian that "The poor are always with us."
Boyce and Boyle grapple with that social issue from a child's point of view. In their first attempt to spread the wealth, the boys take several beggars on an outing to Pizza Hut. Damian envisions the martyrs of Uganda, who school him on how just a little bit of money can go a long way in the third world. When the charity worker (Daisy Donovan) with the robot shows up to school collecting loose change, Damian innocently drops a wad in her bin. To their credit, the filmmakers resist easy answers (at least up until the self-conscious, irresistably upbeat ending): Anthony leans toward spending or investing the money for the family, and as another character points out, "The money makes it harder to see what's what."
Boyce and Boyle flirt with the idea that the boy may indeed be "loony," but the film more concretely threatens to be touching. The boys live with their da (the great James Nesbitt) but miss their late mum (Jane Hogarth). Dad's doing his best, but a series of reversals harden him ("No one is smiling down on us...we're looking out for ourselves") even as the bank robber whose money the kids are spending comes stalking after it.
Though Boyle and Boyce would have done better to cultivate ambiguity about the presence of the saints, for the sake of a laugh, they tilt the scales. Boyle also overdoes it whenever the bad guy appears, laying creepy breathing on the soundtrack; Damian can, at least at first, give the character a fair shake: why can't the filmmakers? After all, Millions explores fine-line morality and ethics—surely the robbers have their own justifications, however questionable. A few narrative jumps also the mar the film's reasoning, particularly in the last act. In one instance, the boys set out to turn in the money to the authorities, but when they return home, they haven't, and the reason why hasn't been offered.
Still, Boyle's energetic pace and typically creative visuals suit the film's fanciful brushes with magic realism. Creative transitions include a shot of the boys wandering around a property that pulls out to reveal it's a photo in a real estate listing, which the boys are perusing. The film opens with a montage of the boys imagining their new home as it magically constructs around them. Brainstorms like these, along with highly saturated color, help to draw the audience into Damian's resolute, optimistic child's perspective: that the world is "complicated," but everything will be okay with a little faith.
[For Groucho's interview with Danny Boyle, click here.]