Two orphaned boys and their lovably clueless father move from a grim row house in Manchester to an absurdly Utopian new housing development that evokes the nightmare perfection of The Truman Show. There are newly constructed homes and a remarkable public school full of bright, eager faces in this suburban fantasyland. The only catch-22, like the elephant in the room no one mentions, are the nuclear power silos that sit like malevolent cloud formations in the distance.
Every Utopia comes with a radioactive lining in Danny Boyle's new film, Millions.
From this introductory evidence, Boyle seems to be building toward some grand commentary on the current social climate that also informed his portraits of drug addicts in Trainspotting and a post-apocalypse dystopia in 28 Days Later. But as in those films, any statement about contemporary life gradually fizzles as Boyle becomes engrossed in the mechanics of plot.
Boyle has always seemed fairly conflicted in this push me-pull me between a pretense of social commentary and technical razzle-dazzle. After all, his critique of greedy me-me-me survivalism in 28 Days Later also featured a scene whose excitement value was generated over a trip to the grocery store where the characters filled their carts with hedonistic abandon.
Millions takes that one scene and crafts a whole movie out of it, offering its audience the vicarious thrills of spending the million pounds that land in 7-year-old Damian's (Alex Etel) lap. The bag of money that falls from a speeding train into Damian's cardboard clubhouse by the railroad tracks turns out to be part of the windfall from a bank robbery.
Boyle generates tension from both the scary thug who shows up looking for his money and the countdown of England's conversion to the Euro, which will soon make the sack of pounds obsolete. Thus the imperative to spend, spend, spend.
The moral question at the center of the film boils down to the kind of dilemmas that keep your average neurotic middlebrow tossing at night: Should you donate your money to charity or buy an iPod? Damian is a solemn child with a Catholic weightiness about him, whose imaginary friends are all saints. He wants to bequeath his windfall to the poor. His brother, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), is a budding Trump with Euros in his eyes who wants to invest the money in real estate but is foiled by brokers reluctant to sign contracts with preteens.
Like other Boyle ventures, Millions has an unwarranted veneer of cool about it, with gee-whiz shots galore motivated by little more than Boyle's love of a special effect. The ring-a-ding-ding style suggests not so much a child's point of view as a director who loves to fiddle. At one point, Damian and Anthony visit the construction site for their new house, and Boyle tosses out a time-lapse fantasy sequence where the house is built before their eyes, boards magically hammered and tiled bathroom walls folding into place. Like many special effects, this one moves you out of the emotional build of the film, reminding viewers yet again that Boyle's forte is effects, not people.
Millions starts off with a bushel of ideas about a cushy middle-class life inoculated from the world's troubles, the loss of a parent, and the absence of spiritual values from contemporary life.
But by the end, there's just the hero battling a stock baddie as all directorial attention turns to foiling the crook ala Home Alone. It's demoralizing for viewers to feel the focus and interest of the director lag to this extent, and difficult, when his interest has clearly flagged, to maintain our own.