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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Free Guy

Ryan Reynolds draws upon his usual likeable charms in this blatant riff on 'The Truman Show', but set inside an online video game.
By Sarah Ward
August 12, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
August 12, 2021
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If Free Guy was a piece of home decor, it'd be a throw pillow with a cliched self-empowerment slogan printed on the front. You know the type. It might catch your eye the first time you spotted it, but it'd look almost identical to plenty of other cushions you can buy at absolutely any department store. It'd make you think of other, nicer pillows, too, but its phrasing and design wouldn't be as resonant or appealing. And, while its attractive font would tell you to believe in yourself, stand out and make each moment count, it'd still simply spout the usual well-worn sentiments that keep being served up as store-bought tonics for weary souls. Yes, Free Guy is a big-budget, star-led movie that primarily exists to answer two not-at-all pressing questions: what would The Truman Show look like if it starred Ryan Reynolds, and how would that 1998 classic would fare if it was about massive online video games instead of TV? But it's firmly Hollywood's equivalent of mass-produced soft furnishings emblazoned with self-help platitudes and designed to sit on as many couches as possible.

Clearly cast for his generically affable on-screen persona — you almost always know what you're going to get when he's leading a film, as the Deadpool and Hitman's Bodyguard franchises keep attempting to capitalise upon — Reynolds plays Free City bank teller Guy. His daily routine involves greeting the same goldfish upon waking, putting on the same blue shirt, picking up the same coffee en route to work, and having the same chat with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery, Judas and the Black Messiah) when their place of employment is held up multiple times each and every day. Guy is completely comfortable with his ordinary lot in life. He knows that things aren't like this for 'sunglasses people', the folks who tend to wreak havoc on his hometown, but he doesn't challenge the status quo until he decides that the shades-wearing Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve) is the woman of his dreams. To have a chance with her, he's certain he needs sunglasses himself — and when he snatches a pair off the latest robber sticking up his bank, it's Guy's first step to realising that he's actually a non-playable character in a video game.

Sporting an upbeat mood best captured by its frequent use of Mariah Carey's 'Fantasy', Free Guy enjoys its time in Free City — which is also the game's title. There's a story behind its NPC protagonist's story, however, with the movie splitting its focus between its Grand Theft Auto-esque virtual world and reality. In the latter, coder Millie uses the Molotov Girl avatar, which she needs to search for evidence for a lawsuit. Years earlier, alongside her pal Keys (Joe Keery, Stranger Things), she created an indie open-world game that was purchased by tech-bro hotshot Antwan (Taika Waititi, The Suicide Squad), then sidelined — and, while Keys now works for Antwan, Millie is certain that Free City rips off their game. Proving that will require Guy's help, especially as he starts breaking his programming, making his own decisions and becoming sentient.

Something that Guy doesn't glean once he begins thinking for himself: that he's the protagonist in a derivative big-screen action-comedy. Free Guy also borrows from The Matrix, The Lego Movie, Groundhog Day, They Live!, Wreck-It Ralph and Black Mirror. Pilfering from terrible fare as well, it even cribs from the abysmal Ready Player One. And, in reminding viewers that Disney is behind this flick via its purchase of 20th Century Fox, and that the Mouse House also serves up all things Marvel and Star Wars — as if anyone had forgotten — it sits in the same space as the horrendous Space Jam: A New Legacy. There isn't a second of Free Guy that feels original or authentic, in fact, even as it keeps stressing the importance of taking your own route through life. Director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum franchise) and screenwriters Matt Lieberman (The Addams Family) and Zak Penn (a Ready Player One alum) are happy with their throw cushion-level message. They're just as content not to practice what they preach. Their villain even blatantly embodies the cash-hungry corporate mindset that thinks leveraging the same ideas is better than developing new ones — there's a whole monologue about it — and it'd be much too generous to think that's a tongue-in-cheek inclusion.

There's a bit of winking and nodding in Reynolds' casting, though, and welcomely so. Again, viewers typically know what to expect when he's the star of the show — and as well as aggressively synthesising a heap of better movies into one script, Free Guy endeavours to forcefully coast by on its leading man's likeable presence. If it wasn't entertaining-enough to see him play this kind of part, Hollywood would've stopped doing it. That said, now three decades into his acting career, audiences can also spot the formula behind most of his roles. Free Guy wants you to do exactly that, and to know that Reynolds is putting his usual charm to work as a guy that's meant to be the epitome of usual, which is by far the smartest thing about the film. The man in the spotlight doesn't let anyone down in the process, but that's different to carrying a feature that's anything more than average. Indeed, other than Comer's naturalistic performance, nothing that's around Reynolds busts free of its usual bounds either, and that can't be by design. You can't print by-the-numbers romantic subplots and slick-but-standard action scenes on home furnishings, of course — and you definitely shouldn't do the same with buzzword-heavy dialogue — but that's always Free Guy's chosen level.

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