Not-So-Foreign Exchange

Millions, an English import, makes charming use of a child's universal perspective.

This sweet little fairy tale imagines the last days of the British pound, which is unlikely to disappear soon in the real world. In the fantasy-meets-reality world of Millions (which opens Friday, March 18, at the Egyptian and other theaters), the problem isn't too little money but too much of it. Pounds are being frantically converted to the new European currency across the U.K. in preparation for what's called E-Day on TV ads. Initially ignoring them are brothers Anthony and Damian Cunningham, being preoccupied with moving from their old row house into a new suburb with their widowed father (James Nesbitt). Nine-year-old Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) is delighted with the flat-screen telly, the new computer (where he can ogle ladies' underwear ads), and his very own bedroom. Boxes are the main benefit so far as 7-year-old Damian (Alexander Etel) is concerned: It's the shipping containers, not their contents, that delight him. Like any good kid, the first thing he wants to do with them is make a fort down by the railroad tracks. He craves an abode scaled to his own size; as he complains of the blimped-out family home, "I don't like having my own room." He's used to sharing with his brother, and he's discomfited by this new abundance his father is offering—forcing, almost—to compensate for their dead mum.

Then come the zombies. Or that's what one might expect from director Danny Boyle, whose 28 Days Later followed on the success of Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. So if he's not to send shrieking zombies after the Cunningham boys, how about heroin addicts or vengeful drug dealers? Initially, there would seem to be nothing in common between this PG-rated family tale and his earlier work, but the Cunningham household is under siege in its own way. There are dark forces outside the front door, as in any good fairy tale.

The mother's death is hardly mentioned, but her specter isn't done with Damian yet. Hardly the ghoulish sort, he carries on vivid, funny conversations in his box fort with the saints and martyrs of the early Christian church. They jovially discuss their specialties and sometimes gory deaths with him; one smokes dope, another speaks Latin, and a third claims to be the patron saint of TV. (Deliver us from The Apprentice!) None of this is textbook theology, of course: Damian finds refuge in the saints' stories, like the shelter of his boxes. So when the fanciful, compassionate lad—concerned about famine and drought in Africa—has a duffel full of cash tumble into his fort, he naturally takes it as a miracle. "I thought it was from God," he says of the bounty—about 229,000 pounds. That'll buy a lot of charity or, if Anthony has his way, a lot of toys.

EITHER WAY, by the time the boys count their loot and realize they've got three days to E-Day, a spending spree is going to result. The easiest, simplest level of fun to Millions is to watch them burn through the money: Andrew bribes his way into a posse of friends at their new school; Damian bestows a bankroll on a house full of bicycle-riding Mormons (leading them, yes, into temptation). Their father eventually learns of the trove, as does a nice charity-appeal lady who visits their school, which sets up the movie for a final Christmas-season rush to legally convert their windfall. But who's that mysterious stranger who starts lurking around Damian's fort, then his school? (There, the boys are about to act in a Nativity pageant.) Another saint, or someone not from the good book?

Millions hasn't got a lot of surprises to it, but they're deployed in a pleasing and surprising manner. Damian narrates the film, which unfolds from the perspective of his limited understanding and overly active imagination. One moment the film is realistic, the next fantastic. Damian talks to saints who aren't there (to us, at least), so we're not sure what to make of the menacing stranger. The whimsy gives way to a chase-movie vibe; even Dad's fling with the fund-raiser lady (Daisy Donovan) takes a serious turn in the end. These would be problems in a different sort of picture, but Millions takes storybook leaps rather than neat plot turns. In an endearing way, Boyle refuses to tell us what's real—if Damian's uncertain, then the movie is, too.

But beneath all Damian's loot, Millions has something more valuable hidden—call it a moral if you must. The money is more of a Macguffin. The boys are growing up during the frantic transition between Old England, with close-knit families and no money, to New England, where new wealth is breaking traditional ties. When Mr. Cunningham attends a homeowners' meeting in their new tract development, a cop says of the rampant burglary, "Obviously there is no community here, not yet." Neighbors no longer look out for one another; it's no wonder that Damian misses his cozy old home.

Is there any way the process can be reversed? No more than the boys themselves can be stopped from growing up. Anthony may be the first to embrace the new spirit of materialism, but Damian will hit puberty soon enough. No saint can compete with PS2. However ambivalently, Millions acknowledges this truth, even while profiting from a child's more generous and hopeful view of the world.

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