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For two young brothers, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) and Damian (Alex Etel), the death of their mother, moving to a new home and starting in a new school forces them to adapt to very difficult circumstances for children of nine and seven years. But when a large duffel bag stuffed with money literally falls from the sky landing squarely on Damian’s newly-built cardboard castle, the challenges multiply exponentially in the 2004 film Millions.
Anthony, whose uncanny business sense kicks in immediately upon seeing the money, suggests secretly spending and investing the money to avoid having to pay 40 percent tax on the 229,000 British pounds.
“Do you know how much that is?” he asks Damian. “Nearly all of it!”
Younger brother Damian has a fascination with saints. He memorizes their stats like many young boys do with baseball players. After deciding that their widowed father Ronnie (James Nesbitt) cannot find out about the money, Damian announces, “We’re going to give all that to the poor.”
“Where you going to find poor people?” Anthony challenges.
When Damian insists that there are “loads of poor people,” Anthony fires back, “Not ‘round here – the house prices keep them out.”
In this way, director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) sets the stage for a richly whimsical yet serious story of divergent world views—one concerned with practicality and advancement, the other colored by almost naïvely idealistic altruism. The brothers never agree over the best use of their fortune, but however they use the money, they must do it quickly. Within a matter of days, Britain will switch over from the pound to the ubiquitous euro (which never actually happened, by the way).
Anthony (named for Saint Anthony?) quickly puts his money to work buying favors from classmates at his new school. He persuades a boy to cart him around on the back of a bicycle while several others run alongside him like secret service agents.
Damian (after Father Damien?) converses with dead saints that nobody else can see, reminiscent of 6th Sense. Saint Claire, patron saint of television is a smoker, Saint Peter carries around a huge set of keys and Saint Nicholas speaks only Latin.
After talking with Saint Francis of Assisi, Damian firms his resolve to give his money to the poor. He starts by inviting several homeless people to join him and Anthony at Pizza Hut. Anthony reprimands Damien for being unrealistic in aiding people. Noting that they would have to buy pizza 1,303.517 times in order to spend all their money, he suggests buying property instead, which will increase in value over time.
Undaunted, Damian asks a Mormon (Latter-day Saint) missionary from the neighborhood, “Are you poor?” When the Mormon finally admits that in a sense, he is poor, Damian shouts “Brilliant!” and runs off to get more money.
As a family film, Millions speaks not only to children through its playful wanderings between reality and fantasy, but like all good make-believe, it also speaks more poignantly to adults.
The movie takes a darker turn when we discover that the duffel bag of cash was thrown from a train in the middle of a well-coordinated robbery. When the bag smashes into Damian’s cardboard fort by the train tracks, it demolishes both his play place and the innocence of childhood. Then, when one of the train robbers begins lurking about, trying to retrieve the bag of money, even Damian’s pure generosity flags amid mounting ethical dilemmas.
Danny Boyle invites us to think on the complexity of a world in which we are at once enticed continuously by the safety of looking out for number one and confronted by the practical difficulties of embracing magnanimity.
Near the end of the film, when Damian’s intentions meet sterner realities, he quips, “I was going to give it to the poor, but it was really hard!”
Damian’s interaction with Saint Peter seems to be the ideological crux of the film. Damian is despondent after discovering that the money he assumed came from God (who else has that kind of money!) was actually stolen. “I thought it was a miracle,” Damian laments. Saint Peter gently recounts a familiar story and gives it a twist we have never heard. He tells the story of the young boy’s loaves and fishes.
When Jesus passed around the plate, the first person passed it on without taking anything from it. In fact, he took out a piece of meat hidden in his pocket and snuck it onto the plate. The next person, seeing what had happened, did likewise. As that plate went around with the sardines, Peter says, they all got out their food and started to share. When the plate came back with the loaves and fish still there, Jesus was taken aback. What happened, Jesus wanted to know. “A miracle,” Peter offered, thinking he had Jesus fooled. But then he saw that it was a miracle - one of Jesus’ best!
When a huge and mysterious bag of money serves as the motor that drives the plot’s progression, it’s easy for us to think that money is the point. Money changes people (or is it rather that it merely emphasizes and clarifies what is already in a person?). Whatever we might be tempted to think about money, as young Damian notes in the film’s opening minutes, “And anyway, in the end it turns out it wasn’t about money after all.”
Although the movie’s overt dismissal of consumerism and none-too-subtle endorsement of charitable giving has seemed preachy to some critics, especially those who may not be given to giving, in the end, along with Anthony, Damian, their dad and a lady friend they meet along the way (the boys’ mother finally approaches sainthood), we are impelled to join in as they travel by flying cardboard rocket to Africa. And after letting their story become our own story, we feel inclined to help them install the clean water pump in the African desert (with some gentle prodding from the Ugandan martyrs).
Jonas Uribe lives in Vancouver, Washington where he works as an electrical engineer. Jonas loves the magic of make-believe.