Free Guy brings dopey comedy and superficial musings to its video-game world

There are a lot of surprisingly heady sci-fi ideas thrown around in Shawn Levy's dumb action comedy Free Guy, but the movie never seems to know what to do with them. It starts with a fun sketch-comedy premise: Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a nonplayable character (or NPC) in the open-world video game Free City, a Grand Theft Auto-style online multiplayer game full of destruction and mayhem.

As a background character, Guy does the same thing every day, waking up in his nondescript apartment, putting on his generic outfit and going to his job at the bank, where he endures multiple armed robberies daily. He and his best friend, security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), know that the "sunglasses people" (the players) can do anything they want, while Guy and Buddy have to stay in the background.

But Guy wants more out of life, especially once he spots a woman he believes is the girl of his dreams. She's an avatar for game designer Millie (Killing Eve's Jodie Comer), who's exploring Free City trying to find evidence that douchebag gaming mogul Antwan (Taika Waititi) stole her code. During one of the many robberies at the bank, Guy makes a move, stealing the player's sunglasses and discovering that he can now see all the power-ups and onscreen instructions that make up the game.

So the NPC becomes self-aware, and he falls in love with the woman who designed him. It's a cute (if logistically dicey) idea that Levy and screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn struggle to fully explore, especially as the movie gets bogged down in the minutiae of the legal battle between Millie and Antwan in its second half. There are some amusing (if dated) sendups of video games at first, and Reynolds is an amiable presence as the clueless but enthusiastic Guy, who sometimes comes off like a sunny, optimistic version of Reynolds' signature role as fourth-wall-breaking superhero Deadpool.

But as Guy becomes increasingly proactive in the game, messing with the players' nihilistic activities and growing closer to Millie during their virtual time together, his function in the plot gets confused, often overtaken by Millie's objective of proving that Antwan ripped her off. There's far too much backstory about Millie and her former partner Keys (Stranger Things' Joe Keery), who now works for Antwan's company but still sympathizes with Millie's cause. Comer, such a fierce presence on Killing Eve, is more subdued here, overshadowed both by Reynolds' wide-eyed goofiness and by Waititi's remarkably annoying flamboyant villainy.

The world of Free City looks gorgeous, even if it never quite looks like a genuine video game, but it feels limited, antithetical to the kind of expansive exploration that games like this provide for players. The filmmakers borrow from video game-themed movies like Tron and Ready Player One as well as philosophical sci-fi films like The Truman Show and Her, but the more that Guy's existence raises existential questions, the more the movie sidesteps them in favor of generic personal empowerment and a corny love story. Levy substitutes mildly amusing cameos (including from many real-life video game streamers) for character depth.

The humor also gets weaker as the plot mechanics take over, and the jokes at the expense of video-game obsessives living in their parents' basements are stale and obvious. Instead of finding innovative ways to employ video-game aesthetics (in the vein of Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), Levy sticks with a broad, basic template, which is recognizable to a wide audience but as empty as Guy's repetitive, preprogrammed catchphrases.♦

Two Stars FREE GUY
Rated PG-13
Directed by Shawn Levy
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Joe Keery

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