Just imagine what a typical American filmmaker would do with a story about two young brothers, still grieving the death of their beloved mother, who come upon a huge cache of money and have to decide between them whether to spend it, give it back or give it away. (Add that the younger kid is a sweet-faced innocent for whom religion–or at least hagiography, a word he wouldn’t understand–is a sort of obsession, while the older is a pragmatically-inclined budding entrepreneur.) Before long the movie would be bathed in bathos and positively congealed in treacle. But “Millions” escapes that fate. Sentimental without becoming sticky, with a cheeky undertone that helps to moderate the sweetness, it’s the rare comedy about children that even the worst curmudgeon should warm to.
It helps that director Danny Boyle has chosen to apply his visually athletic, ripely eye-catching style to Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script. (Also that it’s set in Liverpool, where the accents give dialogue that might otherwise seem simply cute a nicely gruff edge.) Boyle, whose previous films (“Shallow Grave,” “Trainspotting,” “The Beach,” “A Life Less Ordinary”) wouldn’t immediately suggest a spirit suited to this material, uses his technical virtuosity to bathe the entire story in a luminous glow, raising it to the level of a magical fable that, nonetheless, retains an essentially realistic base. Had most directors taken such an approach to a story like this, the result would have been unbearably precious and contrived. But though “Millions” can’t help but seem artificial, it doesn’t become cloying, simply because Boyle maintains an attitude that’s genuinely affectionate rather than calculating. Since he’s unembarrassed by the whimsy, and instead plays around with it, the movie doesn’t turn syrupy and saccharine. Against all reason it remains refreshing, yet with a slight tang.
Boyle’s success is all the more remarkable because one of the central conceits of “Millions” is that angelic Damian Cunningham (Alex Etel, a freckle-faced lad who looks like an unaffected Macaulay Culkin) is regularly visited by the saints whom he treats like classic sports figures, memorizing the facts of their lives and reciting them in juvenile awe. He’s the child whom the satchel of cash literally falls on as he builds a little fortress from shipping boxes beside the train tracks near the new suburban house he, his widowed dad Ronnie (James Nesbitt) and older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) have just moved into. Damian believes the bills–over two hundred thousand pounds–are a gift from heaven, and as the saints come to counsel him about the windfall–such luminaries as Francis, Nicholas, Theresa and Peter are among the visitors (though only Nicholas, curiously, speaks in subtitled Latin)–he grows ever more convinced that the money should be distributed ro the poor. On the other hand, Anthony–the only soul to whom he reveals his find–while willing to spread a bit of the wealth around to build up a cachet of respect at their new school, wants to use the bulk to invest in things like property that will appreciate in value. The kids’ options are complicated by two factors. One is that according to the script, set in the near future, England is about to join the continent in adopting the Euro, and the old currency in sterling will suddenly be worthless–the bills need to be converted quickly, and adults are needed for that process. Another, equally immediate, is that a grubby stranger appears on the scene, claiming first to be a poor man who should be helped by the boys, but soon revealing himself as part of a gang that stole the money as part of a much larger robbery and who’s willing to do almost anything to retrieve it. Eventually Damian and Anthony have to bring both their dad and a high-spirited government worker named Dorothy (Daisy Donovan) into their monetary orbit, and the last act revolves around the quartet’s efforts to exchange as much of the cache for Euros as they can before the deadline renders it nothing more than scrap. The windup, of course, makes it clear that wealth is no replacement for family and emotional contact.
For most directors such a scenario would be an invitation to mawkishness, but though Etel is unquestionably a darling kid (and Boyle hardly conceals the fact), by adding the earthier, more devilish McGibbon to the mix he manages a nice balance, and Nesbitt and Donovan are agreeably imperfect as the two adults on the scene, neither moral reprobates nor images of purity. Boyle and Cottrell also offer smaller nuggets along the way–a group of nearby Mormon missionaries who benefit from Damian’s generosity, an amusingly punctilious local cop (Pearce Quigley), a series of goofy TV commercials encouraging Brits to prepare for the Euro conversion that feature lascivious Leslie Phillips from the old “Carry On” comedies. Not everything works, though. The material dealing with the threatening crook (Christopher Fulford) doesn’t quite find the right pitch, and the denouement–in which the boys’ dead mother (Jane Hogarth) miraculously appears to make it clear to us that her children’s actions and ideas derive from their deep sense of loss–reaches for a transcendency it doesn’t quite achieve.
Despite the flaws, however, the delightful Etel and McGibbon carry things along with great charm, and the admittedly show-offish but visually engaging pyrotechnics of Boyle, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editor Chris Gill add a touch of the luminous to their antics. The hypnotic visuals are matched by a Danny Elmanesque score by John Murphy, which only accentuates the way in which Boyle’s approach calls to mind the similarly extravagant approach of Tim Burton, even if it doesn’t emulate the American’s penchant for thoroughly artificial settings.
“Millions” could be a mite parochial, in all senses, to strike a jackpot at the U.S. boxoffice–it’s not likely to ring the bell for Fox Searchlight the way that “Napoleon Dynamite” did, for example. But those who try it will probably be dazzled by the technique and warmed by the story.