Millions is the essence of "twee" - British slang for "affectedly clever" and "mincingly cute or sweet." It's nothing more than a half-pint of English whimsy about one motherless boy who believes in miracles (Alex Etel) and his older brother (Lewis McGibbon), who believes in money. Their allegiances get tested when a botched robbery drops 265,000 British pounds into their laps at the height of Christmas buying season. It's "use it or lose it," because no bank would take such a large deposit from two tykes, and in a week the United Kingdom will convert to euros.
The director, Danny Boyle, never lets this story's surprises bloom from the characters and plot. He lands them on our heads with outlandish pops or irritating little bangs. Etel believes in saints and sees them all around him: He hopes they'll bring him news of his saintly mother. But aside from the film's depiction of the patron saint of television, St. Clare, as a tough broad dragging on a joint (you can tell she lets her hair down under her habit), Boyle tosses them off as doodles.
These haloed action figures should be our guides into Etel's imaginative landscape. Instead they have the dubious distinction of being the comic relief in a comedy. Boyle's penchant for camera trickery and self-conscious briskness served him better in that bad-trip movie Trainspotting than it does in a sentimental Yuletide tale that climaxes emotionally when Etel's mother magically reappears to dub him a miracle.
Millions unfolds in a suburban Manchester that's not too different from the all-American Spielbergvilles of E.T. and Poltergeist. But, unlike Spielberg, Boyle doesn't have the imaginative vision and the empathy to capture the insidious claustrophobia of suburbia and the transcendent perceptions of kids who see a bland world at different eye-levels from adults.
Boyle and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce don't realize that their natural subject is the wonder kids conjure by themselves to fill out a prefab universe. Instead of discovering found poetry, they deliver sermons on charity versus materialism. And their messages go awry anyway when adults intrude on the plot. The kids' father (James Nesbitt) and his love interest, a charity worker (Daisy Donovan), both prove to be fuzzy pragmatists.
Nothing happens spontaneously in Millions, and nothing happens with storybook eloquence either. Boyle aims to bring off Oliver Twist-like shocks with the emergence of an ominous thief who's after the loot. But he satisfies only minor thriller expectations. Boyle conjures one or two memorable images - there's a quaint, still visual charm to seeing Latter-day Saints biking through the 'burbs. But this director never achieves sublime comedy even when the material is as juicy as Etel wandering off with a Christmas pageant donkey.
Unlike Marc Forster in Finding Neverland, Boyle doesn't showcase his young performers so that their emotions saturate the fantasy. They become commodities of "freshness," instantly endearing but quickly forgettable. And the movie, likable for short stretches, ends up seeming worn and frayed, like Christmas decorations left hanging until spring.
Starring James Nesbitt, Daisy Donovan, Alex Etel and Lewis McGibbon
Directed by Danny Boyle
Released by Fox Searchlight
Time 98 minutes
Sun Score **