Leave it to Disney to make a movie about existential dread fun—and for kids! It’s not really a new concept for Disney, though, as Pixar has virtually cornered the market on animated features about self-awareness, including Inside Out and last year’s Academy Award-winning Soul. But Free Guy, the new movie from 20th Century Studios (not really Disney, but still Disney) starring Ryan Reynolds as a background character from a video game who becomes self-aware, finds ways to reach even deeper into the psyche than even those multi-layered animated discourses could dare, probably because Free Guy comes across as being the furthest thing from multi-layered and complex as a film can get, so it blindsides you with its depth. Unfortunately, though, that depth is masked by an over-polished veneer of winking whimsy that becomes as tiresome as it is predictable.
One thing Ryan Reynolds is very good at is that winking whimsy, but the freshness that he brought to Deadpool is a bit stale here, as so much of what Reynolds does feels recycled both from Deadpool and from his public persona as pitchman and generally loveable movie star. There is everything to love about Reynolds’ character Guy, a simply-written video game background character who lives the same day over and over again, someone who sticks to the script of his life and finds an exceedingly sweet amount of joy in everything he does. Reynolds does imbue Guy with a purity and guilelessness. Even when he is made aware of his real circumstances and is forced to question his entire existence, he still finds optimism and courage, without much of the angst that Jim Carrey’s titular character experiences in the similarly-themed The Truman Show. But Reynolds is unfortunately missing a bit of the same edge that Carrey was able to find, and that missing hue of darkness ultimately hurts the film. Without any real variance in tone, Free Guy is the movie equivalent of eating cotton candy for two hours.
It’s clear that director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Stranger Things) and writers Matt Lieberman (Scoob!) and Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand) were looking to expand on some of the ideas that had been previously explored in such films as The Truman Show, Ready Player One (whose screenplay was written by Penn) and the groundbreaking Tron. They do find clever ways to integrate some very familiar concepts and merge them all into this one film, with a touch of romantic comedy thrown in for good measure. There most certainly is a kernel of exploration here, an expansion of character and more of a focus on genuine human connection that may not have been a part of those obvious influencers, but these elements are nearly drowned by the tidal wave of CGI that Free Guy is clearly all about. The film mostly takes place inside a video game, so the real stars of this film are the special effects team who brought to the big screen every gamer’s paradise, an amalgam of every video game ever created, with references (and easter eggs, I’m sure) galore that will make anyone who has ever pressed play grin with understanding. The effects are truly stunning, and the desired effect of making the audience literally feel as if they are inside a video game comes through perfectly, especially in an opening sequence that shoots the film off like a rocket, boosting the adrenaline level which never fully subsides.
Maintaining that level of interest and excitement for a full two hours requires a lot of maneuvering and not a lot of down time. Which means the love story that is baked somewhere in all of this, between Guy and Molotov Girl, a character he runs into inside the game, played by Jodie Comer, gets serious short shrift. It’s too bad, because Comer brings every bit of her humor and badassery to Free Guy that she brought to her star-making, Emmy-winning role in the FX series Killing Eve. Comer has good chemistry with Reynolds, but Reynolds is far too busy being cute to notice. Comer’s best moments come when she’s roaming the game away from Reynolds or as Millie, her offline character, who is navigating a somewhat confusing relationship with Keys, played by Stranger Things‘ Joe Keery, her friend and co-creator of the same video game they are all playing/living in.
Although the main plot of Free Guy revolves around Guy becoming self aware that he is a character in a video game when he tries to pursue Molotov Girl, there is a subsequent subplot that emerges as Keys and Millie discover that the AI they created is evolving and becoming sentient. The villain of the film then becomes Antoine, played by Taika Waititi, the narcissistic and money-grabbing CEO of the gaming company which bought the game from Keys and Millie and threatens to shut it down, even after Millie and Keys show them proof of Guy’s self-awareness. All Antoine cares about is money, and he thinks a sequel, with a whole new cast of characters, will sell, so who cares if he unplugs some random background character who nobody knows. As they join forces to fight Antoine and to help Guy win his own freedom, Millie and Keys are brought closer together, and the way their relationship plays out is subtle and sweet, with each actor hitting every right note. The same can’t be said for director and Oscar-winning writer Waititi, whose acting skills sadly leave much to be desired, especially when not reined in. Levy lets Waititi roam free, free to improvise many of his scenes, which are painful to watch. If there is anything to get from Waititi’s performance, it’s a reminder of how hard it really is to do comedy and how few can do it well, no matter how talented they are.
Someone who does do comedy well is Channing Tatum, whose one scene nearly steals the movie out from under Ryan Reynolds’s nose. But Reynolds does manage to stay the center of attention the rest of the film, and, despite his sometimes-too-saccharine cheesiness, there are far worse actors to carry a movie, as Reynolds is entirely charming and adorable, having perfected his “who, me?” routine. But even Reynolds knows that he is not the star of Free Guy, the CGI is, along with the multitude of references, jokes and gamer gags that come fast and furiously throughout the entire film. Besides one eye-roller of a fan service scene towards the end of the film that screams of corporate convergence, Free Guy is fun and visually stunning enough to hold the interest of anyone looking for a literal escape to something far away from the real world. It’s just too bad that the humanity gets a little too swallowed up by the technology. Sounds like the real world after all.
Review originally posted on AwardsWatch.