Review: Busy 'Free Guy' could use a reboot
Courtesy of Disney
From “Deadpool,” to “Waiting” and “Van Wilder,” Ryan Reynolds has made a lucrative career out of playing a sarcastic grown man child who improvises and talks too much. It works in the self-aware, cartoonish vein of “Deadpool,” but remove him from that scene and it becomes an overstayed running gag. Such is the case with Shawn Levy's chaotic “Free Guy” where Reynolds plays a Non Playable Character (or NPC) who gains sentience inside a virtualized, popular online video-game inspired by “Grand Theft Auto” called “Free City.”
The film, guaranteed to be a hit among pubescent teenagers at slumber parties across the globe, allows Reynolds free and creative reign to unleash signature remarks and quips that were probably deemed tame by Deadpool’s R rated status quo. (“Free Guy” is PG13). Reynolds seems like the world’s most likable dude and when he makes an “R.I.P.D” or “Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard,” it becomes harder to root for him despite mountains of charisma. He‘s flawless at selling the material, but needs strong collaborators in his corner if the project will achieve lift off and “Free Guy,” unfortunately, isn’t that rocket.
Equal parts “The Truman Show,” “The Matrix” with a dash of “The Lego Movie,” “Free Guy” has plenty of solid ingredients molded into its DNA that it’s shocking how empty it feels. The idea of exploring what transpires inside a virtual reality isn’t new (have you seen “Westworld?”) But the live-action spin and the Ryan Reynolds of it all should’ve added up to a laugh-out-loud satire of online gaming culture. Though it almost scratches that surface, Levy’s film becomes this weird crusade on dismantling the corporate, money hungry, structure (at one point someone makes the comment “Sequels and IP are all the people want” which is ironic coming from Disney who thrive on said principle) it strikes an odd and inconsistent tone.
The movie begins with Guy (Reynolds) stuck on a loop reliving the same boring, repetitive lifestyle every day inside Free City, a town where tanks roam the streets, bystanders brandish missile launchers and gloom and doom is an absolute certainty. Some of Guy’s daily routines include grabbing a cup of coffee (two creams and two sugars to be precise), munching on a bowl of Sugar O’s and awaiting an inevitable robbery at the bank where he works as a teller with his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). Kind’ve bleak Guy assumes his life is supposed to be surrounded by senseless gun violence and random strangers on the street punching him in the face, but I digress. Guy, completely oblivious as NPC’s outta be, is a good sport, often shrugging it off, desperately wanting to be one of the “sunglasses people” (terminology used, because he doesn't know any better, to describe actual, real-world players logging into “Free City” which apparently everyone on planet earth plays).
Of course, “Free Guy” doesn’t squander into the philosophical implications of sentient artificial intelligence as Guy thwarts his programming code and goes off script following a chance encounter with Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) a.k.a. Millie, a programmer on her own mission to find dated code she wrote for a failed start-up called “City Island.” She conceived “City Island” with an old partner, Keys (Joe Keery) who now works for Antoine (Taiki Wati during a horrendous impersonation of the arrogant techie bro) the eccentric creator of “Free City.” Meanwhile, Reynold’s NPC takes on a viral life of his own, hogging up the internet airwaves and Twitch livestreams as the dubious “Blue Shirt Guy.”
Like Truman Burbank before him, Guy lives in an illusion of his own reality, but try as he might (and he does try) Reynold’s can’t replicate Jim Carrey’s magic. The beauty of “Truman Show,” and “The Matrix“ were seeing characters unearthing their sheltered lives and discovering it for themselves. None such revelations or sense of identity happen in “Free Guy” as Reynolds wanders through his existential crisis with slapstick glee and Levy directs with half of the energy of his “Night at the Museum” flicks.
Some jokes land and there are numerous cameos who earn a chuckle (Reynolds wasted no expense). But when you’re throwing several zingers at the screen in the hopes one sticks, eventually you’re bound to laugh. “Free Guy” emulates the core essences of trying to establish a homegrown franchise with a dedicated star willing to do the leg work (plus original, theatrical content is a hot commodity these days); however, the screenplay by Zak Penn (“Ready Player One”) and Matt Liberman pokes too many buttons and never meshes into something worth playing. Hit the reset button.
FREE GUY is now playing only in theaters