A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG, 97 mins.
2005, PG, 97 mins.
Damian: Alex Etel / Anthony: Lewis McGibbon / Ronnie:
James Nesbitt /
Donovan / The Poor Man: Christopher Fulford / Ambrosio: Kolade Agboke
St. Peter: Alun Armstrong / St. Francis: Enzo Cilenti /
St. Nicholas: Harry Kirkham / Mum: Jane Hogarth
Hmmmm…a family friendly Danny Boyle film?
Okay, you can see how that may be perceived as somewhat of an oxymoron. After all, this is the same director that has made such works of the dastardly macabre like SHALLOW GRAVE (1994), the unforgettably wacky and bizarre TRAINSPOTTING (1996), and 2002’s zombie infested 28 DAYS LATER. So, many of you hardcore Danny Boyle purists out there may just cry foul at the thought of him making an overly sentimentalized and poignant message film about family, morality, ethics, religion, faith, and any other after-school-special element that he could throw in. In actuality, MILLIONS should not be criticized for its director wanting to go in a divergent direction from his past work (if anything, going from a undead scare fest to a PG rated family entertainment should be complimented as an act of branching out creatively on his part). No, Boyle’s choice of going irrepressibly cutesy and pleasant with this film is not its quandary – it’s just his focus and follow-though that are the problems.
For the most part, MILLIONS is charming, affable, and engaging in largely low-key and subtle ways. It garners our interest primarily from its two leads, played in this case by Alex Etel and Lewis McGibbon. They are both 7 and 9 respectively and seem far better actors than their limited ages would lead on. Their performances are one of the true saving graces of the film and they keenly demonstrate (no doubt, with Boyle’s coaching) how to effectively balance that delicate mixture of sweetness, naivety, lovability, and thoughtful and youthful intelligence. MILLIONS is greatly benefited by its rousing and appealing child stars, who seem to carry the film that would have otherwise been headlined by adult performers.
Boyle’s treatment of MILLIONS is largely kid-centric – he appreciates the film being told from a juvenile level and does not, in any way, condemn it as being foolish and immature. The kids in the film are sort of revered for their forthright opinions, attitudes and spirited energy with dealing with their particular dilemma. Boyle also does not hide from presenting them as three-dimensional figures with faults and inhibitions. One of the children - despite being irrepressibly huggable - still has predilections to talking to dead saints much of the time. Well, maybe Danny Boyle has not changed his auteur colors very much at all.
MILLIONS is another in a long line of films about how wealth is suddenly (and literally, in this film’s case) dropped in from of you and how one deals with the positive and negative windfalls of it. The film is a bit wiser and attentive with its narrative than other similar films in the sense that it focuses squarely on the two children and how they deal with becoming wealthy in a heartbeat. The kids do what most kids would probably do if a bag of 229,000 pounds were dropped in front of them – they tell all of their friends and pay them off not to tell anyone; they buy cool toys and gadgets, like picture phones just so they can have one; and they even do some apartment hunting for a much more lavish pad.
Unfortunately for the young lads, several things are impeding their enjoyment of spending all of their money. Firstly, "Euro Day" is soon approaching, which essentially means that if you do not convert all of your hard currency into the Euro by a specific date, your pounds will be useless. Also, there also seems to be a vile and ill-tempered criminal that is hot after the boys for the bundle of lout he robbed by later lost to them. Oh, then there are the larger theological issues with one of the kids – the one who talks to dead saints. He thinks the money is a hand-me-down from God and wants to give it all away to the poor and needy. Of course, everyone around him thinks that’s bullocks! When the older brother - Anthony -chastised his younger sibling Daniel for bringing a 1000 pounds to school to give to a local charity, Daniel takes it all in stride. “It’s not suspicious. It’s unusual,” he matter-of-factly explains.
I think it's largely with the criminal and more overtly religious aspects of the film where Boyle seems to drown in convoluted tonal waters. The film starts out as a largely entertaining and funny reality dramady and soon gives way to fantasy and then finally to a substandard denouement where the kids and family have to square off against the villain who desperately wants his money back. The film kind of falls apart under its own weight, during which time it tries to be far too many things too much of the time. The odd paradox behind MILLIONS is that it is done in by precisely what makes it alluring – it has that trademark Boyle quirkiness and sense of the ludicrous that has permeated his other films and these moments are light and funny, but they largely distract from what could have been an immersing story of greed and what it can do to even the noblest and kindest of hearts. The film meanders and lumbers around in search of a true and unifying story and when we are dealt up with one offbeat saint after another, it all feels a bit too contrived and unnecessarily eccentric.
The character of Damian, played with a brilliant, youthful pluck and charisma Alex Etel, is one of those people that is incredibly hard not to love, but also is increasingly hard to buy as a real persona. He’s one the most atypical nine year olds I’ve seen in a film. Yes, he’s energetic, spirited, and inquisitive and has his faced adorned with the right number of freckles to illicit the obligatorical “Awwww’s” from the audience. He is also a deeply disturbed child whose own dementia is never challenged by anyone, nor is it really dealt with. He worships saints and is an amateur expert in them (uh-huh). He knows all of their vital stats and their respective histories (uh-huh). He seems so unfathomably intelligent for a boy of his years (he has no problem knowing who the Ugandan martyrs of 1881 were), not to mention a bit too crazy to not be in a little straightjacket.
Damian talks to a lot of saints in the film and even sees them in large packs at times with little halos over their heads. Some of the saints he speaks to have that staple Boyle taste for the irreverent and whimsical. Some, like Clare of Assissi, are shown as chain smokers. The most humorous has to be good old Saint Nicolas himself, who assists Damian deliver cash “gifts” to some needy neighborhood Mormons. They, in turn, use their wealth for their own good. They buy big screen digital TVs.
Honestly, what are the points of these scenes, other that to pepper up a screenplay with a redundant level of mysticism and light-heartedness? It is here where MILLIONS gets really bogged down with precocious kids talking a lot about principles and decency, more than most kids of their age would. Boyle had a decent opportunity here to tell a simple morality play, but instead infuses in it a considerable amount of redundant thematic elements. There are simply too many ingredients in this cake. His earlier film, SHALLOW GRAVE, told a similar story of newfound wealth much more engagingly. That film chiefly focused on how a person's own nature and lust for things can be their own ultimate undoing. In MILLIONS, we sort of get some of that, but with a lot of needless religious imagery and symbolism and subplots involving saints and criminals that could have made up the parts of other better films.
For a film that introduces and sets up the characters and story so simply, it’s startling to see how much confused it gets later. The premise of the film is straightforward. Two British kids, Damian (Etel) and his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), have moved to a new house with their father after the sudden death of their mother. One day they play on the rail tracks and discover a bag filled with 229,000 pounds. They decide not to inform any adults. Alex sees it as a huge opportunity for wealth and prestige. The enlightened Damian wants to give it all to the poor. Then we get the typical conflict between the two brothers, which later materializes to conflicts with their father and schoolteachers. On top of that we get the silly subplot with the crook that wants his loot back and one too many moments with Damian having fireside chats with dead saints.
Okay…okay…I know what this film is trying to say and where it is trying to go. MILLIONS wants to be an ultimate feel-good parable about people doing the right thing and gaining riches far more valuable than anything monetary in return. This, on a basic level, is a theme that is nothing new to movies. The film is soppy and romanticized without being too force-fed and emotional gooey, sans for one scene with Damian talking to one particular dead figure that seems enormously telegraphed. Also, there is a final montage (before the end credits) that invites a shake of my head and feelings of incredulity more than it inspired in me feelings of uplifting joy and euphoria.
MILLIONS is a creative film, to be sure, and it has a lot of visual and aesthetic flourishes that only Boyle could dream up. Some opening moments - where the kids visit the site of their future home which is made up of chalk outlines for its foundation - later segues into a scene of joyous special effects as the home builds itself around the fascinated and imaginative kids. Boyle is also good with the camera and knows impeccably when and where to go for simple and static shots and when to obscure the shot for the right ominous sense of threat and danger. In these ways, MILLIONS is not like a lot of dime-a-dozen children’s films. The film is much more sophisticated stylistically than it would initially let on it is.
Both of the child actors have great chemistry and play the roles without any serious false notes. They don’t overplay them (like many child actors could have), nor are they underdeveloped as personalities that we can invest in and like. The same can’t be held true for a couple other characters, namely the father (played James Nesbit) and a charity relief worker (played by Daisy Donovan). The father role seems like an afterthought and is only marginally developed, as is his fling with the relief worker, who’s role is as inconsequential as it gets for the story.
Danny Boyle’s films are ones that I have respected and criticized simultaneously. His TRAINSPOTTING remains an ingenious work of drug-hazed hallucination, and his SHALLOW GRAVE is a movie of searing psychological pathos. I loathed his muddled and confused A LIFE LESS ORDINARY from 1997 and felt that he missed many marks with THE BEACH from 2000. 28 DAYS LATER, while critically cherished, is a film that I am still embarrassed to say that I have not seen. As for MILLIONS? I will give Boyle credit for not going back to his creative well of ideas and instead tries to do a warm-hearted and light film for the entire family. However, I kind of feel bad for not liking it as much as I should have. It has appealing and congenial child actors, a breezy vitality and flightiness, and it refreshingly tells an age-old tale from a child’s perspective. Yet, when all is said and done, MILLIONS did bring some modest smiles to my face, but at a price. It just failed to resonate as a rewarding family film and instead engaged in too much miscalculated sermonizing and contained too many other tertiary elements that should have been left on the cutting room floor. If you take away all of its rough edges, MILLIONS does not ultimately please the way it should have.