Directed by Shawn Levy
Written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn
It's been 2021's unfortunate distinction to have produced, month-on-month and damned near in a row, both Space Jam: A New Legacy and Free Guy, two new movies about video games that occupy a genre niche that, I suppose, could be traced all the way back to TRON, but clearly take a more proximate inspiration from Ready Player One. The misfortune, of course, is that both of these movies absolutely fucking suck, somehow managing to absolutely fucking suck in different ways, even though both endeavor to pick up the torch Ready Player One dropped. Which might be the real problem, the whole point of Ready Player One (as I saw it) being to extinguish the torch, so that civilization wouldn't accidentally burn itself down with it in a fit of endless recursion and empty fantasy.
The disquieting part of this phenomenon is that I've had to wonder if I was the idiot for seeing that in Ready Player One, especially considering that the same person who wrote Ready Player One's screenplay, Zak Penn, also co-wrote Free Guy's. Maybe I could blame this one on co-writer Matt Lieberman, but Ready Player One was technically co-written by Ernest Cline, too, and Penn didn't succumb to that black hole. I shall instead fall back upon auteur theory: it's not some completely insoluble mystery why the movie directed by Steven Spielberg is better than the movie directed by Shawn Levy, of Night at the Museum fame. And if I had to back that up with more than just an appeal to the Scarf, well, there's nothing in Free Guy along the lines of the way Spielberg took Cline's vision of a physically and spiritually impoverished Ohio and actually made it a metaphor, or the way that Spielberg vandalized his own dead friend's movie to demonstrate how blind nostalgia and interactivity can pose deadly threats to even the best-made art.
I suppose I've also raised the question of whether Free Guy is any better than Space Jam 2, and I guess the answer is "yes," though when I left the theater after this 115 minute film, having spent about 105 of them wanting it to be over, I pondered whether it actually might've been worse. On reflection, that's only an illusion cast by having the option to watch Space Jam 2 at home where I could control it, whereas with Free Guy I was trapped there in the dark. Yet there's also something to be said for Space Jam 2's nihilistic bravado: perhaps it's easier to respect a movie that deliberately spits in your face than a movie that only drools on itself, even if the movie that drools on itself is, by definition, more friendly.
Free Guy, anyway, is a tale of Free City, a hugely-popular multiplayer sandbox game whose aims and game mechanics are downright mystifying: the players don't seem to work together in any formalized fashion and fight each other only occasionally (in fact, it's mainly by implication that this happens), while facing little in the way of any real threats or obstacles generated by the computer. The readiest comparison, obviously, is to a conspicuously-featureless iteration of Grand Theft Auto, in that Free City also involves running around an urban landscape causing mayhem that, hypothetically, could result in being punished. In practice, it seems more like every NPC in the whole game has been programmed to preemptively surrender—to wit, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), currently unfree.
Guy's an NPC who works at a bank that gets robbed every day, and for whom the bizarrely-costumed übermenschen who fall out of the sky and fuck shit up draw no particular comment, as Guy has long since accepted them as a fact of his world. And yet some indescribable ennui troubles Guy. In between (and during) his daily robberies, this is what he discusses with his best bud, er, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery, representing a tangible Space Jam 2 connection, but he's in this more and therefore gives an even more annoying performance, albeit somehow not the film's most annoying performance). Guy's problem, at least in part, is that he's lonely, and he wonders if he'll ever meet the right woman who checks his idiosyncratic boxes such as "liking bubble gum ice cream" and "enjoying happy girl pop." (So the NPCs date? If not, how else do they have a frame of reference for romantic longing?) Well, cue MolotovGirl (Jodie Comer), a player who drops in, passes Guy, naturally without noticing him, but triggers his intense fixation when he hears her humming one of his favorite tunes. Now ripe for an existence-redefining experience, this is exactly what happens to Guy when he snatches the in-game representation of the user interface, a pair of glasses, off of a another human player. Suddenly, though he does not yet comprehend it, he sees the game for what it is, a dizzying whirlwind of icons and text.
When he finds Molotov again, she mistakes him for a newbie human player. Her tossed-off advice is to level up, and he does, unwittingly becoming the best Free City player in the world, so by the time Molotov's realized he's actually the game itself, gone self-aware, he's found full-on Internet celebrity as the mysterious "Blue Shirt Guy." The good news is that Molotov, whose real name is Millie, recognizes Guy as a potential ally in her real-world quest to find the evidence that arrogant tech billionaire Antwan (Taika Waititi, who is giving the film its most annoying performance) stole the innovative (they mean "extremely boring"*) indie game that she'd developed with Antwan's current employee, Keys (Joe Keery), unlawfully using its code to build Free City in the first place. He did this by means that are legally-complex, and not explained well enough in the movie for it to not constantly bother you while you try to figure out why Antwan's evil enough to be an action movie villain. He gets by mostly on the back of his venality, for example when he decides to go ahead and shut down the Free City servers to make way for his cash-grab sequel even though he knows there's a bona fide computer intelligence in there, thus passing up the opportunity to study and exploit a revolutionary, trillion-dollar piece of intellectual property because he'd rather charge his user base $3 a pop to get their old costumes and character skins back. Can Guy, Millie, and Keys save the day? I dunno, but this movie sure has a wearying amount of plot for something that should be able to fit into the logline, "one day, an NPC in a video game woke up."
This is at least part of Free Guy's problem, in that there's a number of angles from which to approach this concept and Lieberman and Penn essentially choose all of them, with the balance of the film following Guy and his self-actualization in his game world, but with vastly more than is necessary or useful given over to Millie's real world. Almost all of this is dead air, grimly struggling across the dull pathos of the way Antwan has ruptured Millie and Keys's friendship and turned Keys into a sadsack loser (Comer's performance is occasionally effective when she's serving as Reynolds's straight man, and pretty bleak otherwise; I guess I can offer some praise for how she's thought about Molotov as somebody who moves in a walk cycle, but that's maybe the kind of texture that should come after making the performance actually interesting, though, in fairness to Comer, it's not like there's really much to work with). Horribly, "dead air" only describes this thread of the film when it's at its best: the rest of the time the real-world segments are spent gawking at the hyperactive cartoon Waititi has crafted out of rejected takes from Grandma's Boy, typically set against the weightless heel-turn of Keys's irritating co-worker Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar). In combination with the premise, this two-pronged, jam-packed approach to the narrative also winds up with a first half-hour (or, really, whole film) that has the mood of abrasive mania even while it feels like nothing whatsoever is actually happening.
The game-world part is more dynamic, but remains a vibrant shade of not-good. The only part that works, for any longer than a scene (or, usually, a single-shot joke), is that it's hard to imagine anybody besides Ryan Reynolds in the title role, and he acquits himself well even if everything around him is terrible, though I could've lived without several "additional dialogue provided by" moments where everyone talks about how hot this film's co-producer is. Still, there's not another leading man in maybe the whole history of American film who's built a career (well, the second phase of a career) so totally upon this kind of open, pathetic desperation for validation, and that's fitting for an AI programmed for cringing obsequiousness, suddenly struck with a desire for dignity but who never quite abandons the basic traits of his born-yesterday innocence or his pre-fabricated dorky sense of humor. (Reynolds plays a second role in the film, too, a warped reflection of Guy. That role is almost certainly this film's most successful bid for humor and its cleverest piece of character design—it's still undermined by being inside the climax to a story I didn't care about, and which also, thanks to the covid delay, features corporate-mandated reshoots to shoehorn in some egregious cross-branding for 20th Century Fox's new owners, Disney—though I likewise approve of Guy's own design, which captures his iconic unremarkability, and also provides the film its most genuinely agreeable visual concept, that of a pastel-shifted Best Buy employee who's learned kung fu.)
Fundamentally, the problem is that the film just manifestly does not care about or believe in its own story; it takes the path of least resistance from its beginning to its end, barely taking the shape of a proper motion picture at all. Lightweight entertainment is my bread and butter, but this is so gossamer-thin that it disintegrates at the slightest poke, and the screenplay itself is frequently the one doing the hardest poking. The elephant in the room, of course, is how openly—abjectly—this film rips off The Truman Show, from its catchphrase-spouting, secretly-resourceful everyman, to its climactic chase sequence that exploits the exact same liminal imagery but without the poetry, down to the editing rhythms and performance styles. It even uses Guy's audience (in this case comprised of real-life video game streamers and content creators, but no Marss, so who cares?) as an intercut cheerleader section during Guy's final battle for self-determination. (Oh, and the clumsy conceit of the players' glasses also means it rips off They Live, but, disturbingly, it doesn't even seem like it knows it.)
Now, I could like a Truman Show knock-off about video games—but it should do something with it. I certainly don't need Free fucking Guy to be a grand allegory about escaping Eden, but I did need it to take itself seriously enough to hang together as a believable world. Consider Guy and Molotov's digital date, concluding when he shocks her by being able to actually kiss her (that is, her avatar). "There's no button for that," she says, but when the plot wheels around to requiring her to kiss him, I guess she took another look at the instruction manual. (Seems like that could've been a fun joke about video game control schemes and collision detection if anybody cared to make it one. Perhaps she could've teabagged him to the same effect?) That's the moment most emblematic of the film's lazy carelessness, but pretty much the whole thing is just as out-of-focus and fuzzy. Bricksburg was more credible.
Free Guy tries to plumb the personality of an entity whose whole arc is rejecting his preprogrammed acceptance of constant, inexplicable chaos, and it does this with so little passion (and so prone to trying to distract you with references from twenty year old video games that you suspect Lieberman and Penn think are current), that it rarely, going on never, offers up any wonder or existential terror to feel on Guy's behalf. That's where that two-track narrative really damages things, because we already know everything, and Guy, unlike Truman, barely discovers any of it. He is, almost invariably, told. (Or, with the glasses, he's shown.) Yet every one of the best parts of the movie involve Guy working through something himself, even if these are vanishingly rare, like the montages where he brings his computerized reaction times to bear on poor fleshbots on bad Internet connections, or the breakdown he experiences as he strolls through another day in Free City and realizes for the first time it looks more like Berlin in 1945 and it's absurd that nobody cares. I'll give Levy some marginal credit for form, or maybe that should go to cinematographer George Richmond, but even then, his bland, plasticky, aggressively antiseptic photography, while complementing Guy's bland, plasticky, aggressively antiseptic world, might just be a lucky accident, insofar as a lot of big-budget CGI-fests look like this already.
But, like, it's a comedy. Well, it's funny about one quarter of the time, which gets swamped by the quarter where it's belligerently unfunny (this quarter involves shallow and insulting let's-call-it-cultural-critique that's probably trying to distract you from the casting oopsy that makes every brown person evil or useless or both, not to mention how some heavily-signposted revelations about Guy and Millie's relationship confirm that everyone involved was bone-quakingly terrified of getting even slightly weird or interesting). That one-quarter that manages to be funny has its moments, though. There are some genuine laughs, even, mostly related to Reynolds's persona, though if a video game movie with Reynolds is what you're after—and I can't believe I had to say that—just watch Detective Pikachu, which at least has the benefit of being delightfully insane. Free Guy has few benefits at all, just the drabbest possible execution of an intriguing idea you'll see all year. Oh, right, except Army of the Dead. What a time to be alive.
*Then again, I just saw an ad for a lawnmowing simulator. I don't think it was a joke.