Register Saturday | December 7 | 2019

Danny Boyle Gives Us Millions

(of Reasons to Feel Guilty)

Because I'm poor-or, rather, because I live beyond my meagre means, compared to friends who are doctors, lawyers and investment bankers-I spend a too-large percentage of my day fantasizing about winning lottery pots, coming into a billion shares of Microsoft stock or randomly inheriting a French duchy. And then I make a top-ten list of what I would do with my wealth. But No. 1 is never "Buy Tahiti." Even in my fantasies, guilt wells up in my throat like stomach acid after a bowl of bad clams. My No. 1 is always "Pay off my debt-and not just MasterCard and the student loans, but also the money I borrowed from Dad in 1999, from my friend Laura in 2002 and from Mom in 2002, 2003 and 2004." Usually, No. 2 is "Pay off all my friends' debts so that they can live the lives they want to live, and not work for the Man until kingdom come." No. 3 is often "Buy up every loft building in Williamsburg and create free housing for artists-not trust-fund Prada monkeys, but real creatives who can't afford to come to New York and really should." Then I start giving away millions to AIDS foundations and housing for the homeless, and then I create foundations to create special scholarships for inner-city high-school students and gay kids from Republican states. By No. 10, I might buy a Volvo, or an iPod.

I've never been able to figure out where my guilt comes from. I'm neither Catholic nor Jewish, and my parents, while neurotic, didn't warp my brain with guilt trips. Well, not anything worse than "You really should call your father. He's not getting any younger. And if he dies tonight, you'll feel terrible that you didn't call. Just terrible. But you don't have to call if you're too busy downloading Laura Branigan remixes. I'm sure nothing will happen tonight." Oh, wait. Shit. It is their fault. Well, I don't want to lay blame. In fact, I think guilt can do some wonderful things. It stops people from lying and increases charitable donations. I like having a higher than average altruism; I love feeling better than everyone else. Did I just write that? Shit.

I'd better get to the movie; I don't want anyone to think this column is just an outlet for my anxieties. But Millions fed my anxieties-my guilt and fear and childhood fantasies and adult daydreams. It's a movie about a little boy who finds a quarter of a million pounds sterling; it's called Millions because when he and his brother are counting the bills, before they get to the right number, they yell out, "Millions!" which I guess sounds better than "£256,756."

Here's the plot: After his mother dies, Damian, his father and his older brother, Anthony, move to a housing development in the suburbs. Damian takes the moving boxes and builds a fort near the train tracks. In his hideout, he talks to saints, asking them whether they see his mother in heaven. (The saints are, oddly, the best comic relief of the film. Saint Clare smokes, Saint Nicholas is senile, and Saint Peter is a cynic.) One day, as a train speeds by, a bag of money falls into Damian's fort. Damian wants to give it to the poor, but Anthony wants to splurge. The "suspense" of the film is whether Damian and Anthony will be able to spend or convert all the money before it becomes useless in the age of the euro, before their father finds out and before the man who originally stole the money and threw it off the train comes and tries to get it back. The movie is, ostensibly, about what an idealistic child would do with a fortune, but it's also about sainthood and greed and the powers of imagination.

Most of the hype about Millions revolves around what a departure it is for director Danny Boyle. This, after all, is the guy who directed Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach and 28 Days Later. Not only are these films "edgy" and "hip," but they are about as kid-friendly as a crack-whore cage fight. Trainspotting had dead babies and diarrhea diving, and 28 Days Later is one the scariest zombie movies ever made. (The scariest might be the new Dawn of the Dead, which terrified me so much that I walked out after fifteen minutes.)

Millions, like Boyle's other films, is remarkably well directed. There are shots so extraordinary that you don't simply mention them at dinner after the movie, you lean forward in your seat and whisper, "Jesus Christ." A scene in a schoolyard has Damian standing still while all the other children run past him, playing with giant, brightly coloured balls. In another, Boyle shoots Damian through a tunnel of cardboard boxes, sunlight streaming through a hole, all of it shaking from the passing train. Damian is laughing as if he's being tickled. I like that Boyle is using his powers to create a sense of wonder and glee, not just for terror and gloom.

Millions, like Boyle's other films, is remarkably well directed. There are shots so extraordinary that you don't simply mention them at dinner after the movie, you lean forward in your seat and whisper, "Jesus Christ."

Alexander Etel plays Damian, and his face is the face of the film-it's on every poster and just about every shot of the movie. He has a darling face, too: gorgeous blue eyes, freckles so perfect that they could have been painted on by the production designer. He's not much of an actor, however. Most of the time he just stands around looking cute and making age-inappropriate comments about the lives of saints and the switch from the pound to the euro. Sometimes his blandness makes his oddities funny; occasionally, it makes him creepy. As the narrator, his imagination frames the film, and it's not clear what is real and what is in his head. Maybe that justifies the moral ambiguity of the end, when Damian and his family (including the father's love interest, a charity worker) rocket to Africa, where they play with a new water pump in a shantytown. Earlier in the film, we're told a pump would cost £10. It's a bizarre colonialist fantasy: a small child finds a bag of money, gives some of it away, keeps a lot of it, and Africa gets a new water pump!

It made me kind of queasy-and not just because I'd drunk a couple of quarts of refreshment-stand Coke that I couldn't afford. The depiction of non-whites in the movie was odd; they were either Indian retail workers in the real world or black slave-saints in Damian's imagination. The poor, whom Damian wants to help, are depicted as con-artist panhandlers. And even though Damian yells at his father for wanting to keep the money, he gleefully helps spend it. For a child of faith, he seemed remarkably free of guilt. I wondered what I would have done at his age. Would I have been able to control myself? To give the money to kids who needed it? Or would I have bought all the Legos I could find? If I could have gotten away with it, would I still have felt guilty?

Ted Gideonse has written about the arts (and other stuff) for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Salon and the Advocate. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Bring Me the Axe appears every other Friday.