Throw The Truman Show, The Lego Movie, and The Matrix into a blender and you are likely to wind up with something like Free Guy – a new feature starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Shawn Levy (A Night at the Museum).
Guy (Reynolds) is an easygoing bank teller living in Free City. Every day he wakes up, puts on the same tan chinos and blue shirt, drinks the same coffee, and works alongside security guard and best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). When he follows a strange but attractive woman (Jodie Comer) away from his normal routine he discovers that he is actually a non-player character in an online videogame.
Free Guy is a mess. It does not simply juggle similar elements out of a range of films, it also has a hell of a time settling upon a consistent creative direction or tone. Marketing has indicated a strong resemblance to the sort of freewheeling, violent antics of Reynold’s Deadpool movies, and that is certainly true to an extent. The film also tries to also be a sincere romantic comedy and a science fiction film about emergent artificial intelligence. By attempting to be so many different things at once, it fails to do any single one of them particularly well.
Ryan Reynolds is amiable but somewhat tiresome, relying on his well-rehearsed schtick of happy faces and scatalogical dialogue. Lil Rel Howery, as best friend Buddy, gains some territory in mocking the worn cliche of the ‘black best friend’ before the film seems to forget satire in favour of simply repeating the cliche itself. As game designer Millie – aka username “molotovgirl” – Jodie Comer suffers with a character far below her talents. Fan-favourite Taika Waititi plays the film’s villain Antwon as a dreadful pile of tired stereotypes and pop culture references. It is hard to make out whether his dialogue is improvised or simply under-rehearsed; either way it feels sloppy and Waititi looks bored.
More than a few of the film’s extensive pop culture riffs and references feel either weirdly out of date – Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” is eight years old, for goodness sake – or perversely opportunistic – you’ll recognise what I mean during the climax. As for representing gaming and gamer culture, it features a lot of Internet-famous celebrities and comedy references but also makes at least three jokes about virgins.
There are jokes that land. There are moments that work. There are a few cameos that provoke straight-up belly laughs. There are also jokes that feel positively awful, moments that cringe, and one particular celebrity cameo in which the celebrity passed away prior to release and should probably have been excised – it is fairly hard to laugh at the dead.
If Free Guy was stripped back by 30 minutes and focused solely on its comedy elements, it might have been a reasonably watchable film. The same is true if it were stripped of the comedy and allowed to blossom into a properly thoughtful meditation of what constitutes life. It cannot do both, but bless them the creatives behind it – both Levy and screenwriters Matt Liebermann (Scoob!) and Zak Penn (The Incredible Hulk) – have a red-hot go nonetheless. Perhaps there is a market niche for audiences stuck deciding between underwhelming comedy and underwhelming science fiction, and Free Guy may well fill that. Otherwise it all just seems a waste of a concept and a missed opportunity. It is watchable but disappointing.