Somewhere deep within Ryan Reynolds, an inner Jim Carrey waits to burst free, like Ace Ventura squeezing himself out of the anus of an animatronic rhino. Don’t see it? Look closer, past the superhero abs and leading-man good looks. Reynolds may lack Carrey’s sheer id-forward shamelessness—he could blend into a fraternity pledge week much easier than his rubber-limbed elder ever could—but there’s a hint of comparable screwball mania in that ironic jackal’s grin he so often plasters onto his million-dollar mug. And after all, who is Deadpool, really, but The Mask with a dirtier vocabulary and a more modern frame of pop-culture reference?
With Free Guy, Reynolds gets just a little more in touch with his Carrey side via nothing less than his own version of The Truman Show, shorn of its daydream dread and rocketed into the age of Fortnite. Reynolds’ character, called simply Guy, is an unyieldingly chipper everydude who greets each morning with a smile. Throwing on the same blue shirt, listening to the same tune from another famous Car
rey, and ordering the exact same cup of coffee, Guy lives his life in a state of happy repetition. Everyone he encounters along the way gets his famous salutation, which would make Truman Burbank himself proud: “Don’t have a good day. Have a great day!”
Guy is so accepting of his unchanging routine that he doesn’t even mind the almost hourly armed robberies that occur at his workplace, the local bank. He shrugs, too, when commandos zipline or jetpack into his line of vision, trading fire across busy intersections. And so what if he catches a bullet or gets plummeted skyward by a reckless driver? He’ll just wake up in his bed the next morning, same stupid smile back on his face. What Guy doesn’t know, but the audience surely will (it’s all over the trailers), is that he’s not a real person at all but rather an NPC—or non-player character—in a popular and extremely violent open-world video game. He exists only to go about his day, to follow his script, and, sometimes, to be blown to smithereens.
That’s actually a pretty bleak premise, if you think about it for a second. And it gets bleaker with the knowledge that, unbeknown to his programmers, Guy is actually sentient, a true artificial intelligence. What special hell would it be to play cannon fodder in a Grand Theft Auto you could never escape? Yet for all its casual mayhem, Free Guy turns out to be a rather cuddly crowdpleaser, a high-concept blockbuster trifle with bubblegum ice cream clogging its circuits. The film’s director, Shawn Levy, has made almost nothing except noisy but innocuous time-wasters like the Night At The Museum movies. Here, he folds the stray troubling questions raised by his conceit into a plot that sets Reynolds’ digital background player on a self-actualization path; if the rebelling robots from Westworld wrote a feel-good comedy, it might play a little like this.
When one of the daily robberies ends with him accidentally merking the robber (a real player, which the NPCs aren’t supposed to be able to attack), Guy gets his hands on the victim’s sunglasses—a pair of eyewear that allows him to see, like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in They Live, the secret messages (and, in this case, powerups and side missions and stats) scattered across his world. Suddenly, he’s a do-gooder superhero, or an inverted Neo, disarming the real humans by seeing the design of the Matrix, all without knowing what he is. What sparks this unexpected break from his programming? Why, love of course. Guy meets and instantly falls for Molotov (Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer), the bespectacled, suspendered, pistol-packing woman of his electric dreams. Behind the avatar, she’s actually a game designer, Millie. Free Guy develops an unlikely romance between the two: “The only non-toxic guy I meet is a robot,” she sighs. It’s a cute idea, the earnest algorithm playing Mr. Rogers in a gamer cesspool; in reality, an artificial intelligence learning from users of an online shooter would go deplorable faster than that Microsoft bot ruined by Twitter.
The script, co-written by Zak Penn (who helped usher to the screen the comparable video-game exploits of Ready Player One), keeps leaping out into the real world, as Millie gathers evidence that the game’s makers stole her code; she’s got help from her old partner, Keys (Joe Keery from Stranger Things), who now works for the enemy. The AAA company Millie’s suing is run by a crooked mogul played by Taika Watiti, doing a gobsmackingly awful caricature of modern tech-bro arrogance. Free Guy is somehow the second big-budget movie this summer set in an online world that essentially fulfills the vision of its villain: We’re meant to boo and hiss when Watiti praises “IP recognition,” and also to cheer when Levy stops the film cold to shamelessly work in some recognizable IP. (No spoilers, but remember that Disney absorbed 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, a while ago.)
When it isn’t directly referencing other geek-favored properties, Free Guy is just vaguely evoking them; like its bad guy, it seems to have pilfered its code from outside sources, building a beaming joystick mashup of earlier beloved fantasias. At the same time, there’s something rather boringly anonymous about the fantasy world it creates. Free City is, by design, a generic multiplayer sandbox—it’s supposed to look like any and every free-rein video game metropolis. As a result, though, there’s nothing especially specific about either the action or the comedy of this action-comedy: It’s all just “amusingly” reproduced clichés—a super jump here, a motorcycle crashing through glass there. One of the better jokes arrives late into the movie, when Guy is forced to take on a brawny he-man doppelgänger—a planned addition to the game’s sequel—who the programmers haven’t finished scripting, and his unfinished dialogue is all placeholders. Thing is, that could describe a lot of Free Guy. Both its humor and CGI bumper-car set pieces have an “insert fun here” quality.
Naturally, the fate of Free City—and the real artificial intelligence baked into its design—comes to rest on Guy. He’s living a shiny computer mirage of a life, and as with Truman before him, his path to liberation leads to a beach, a body of water, and whatever lies beyond. Free Guy, by extension, rests on its star and his cloying super-naif routine, which might be the movie’s most fatal glitch: Guy never really becomes a character, because Reynolds, putting the artificial into artificial intelligence, fails to deepen him into anything more than an idealized gee-whiz wrinkle in the system. Part of the startling magic of The Truman Show was the way it allowed Carrey to slowly dismantle the wholesome blankness of his title character, until we were watching an unwilling puppet going through a full existential crisis. Free Guy is like a version of that television-age fairy tale where the full crisis never arrives: Reynolds replicates that slightly unhinged Truman Burbank grin but not the desperation behind it. More than ever, you long to see him unleash his inner Carrey, with all the comic derangement but also the emotional expressiveness that implies.