If it hasn’t been clear before, there’s a decent amount of Jim Carrey within Ryan Reynolds. If you look past the superhero abs and leading-man good looks, you can see it. Reynolds may lack Carrey’s sheer shamelessness — he could blend into a fraternity party much easier than his elastic elder ever could — but there’s a hint of comparable screwball mania in that ironic grin he so often plasters onto his million-dollar mug. With Free Guy, Reynolds gets a little more in touch with his Carrey side via nothing less his own version of The Truman Show, stripped of its daydream dread and rocketed into the age of Fortnite. Reynolds’ character, named simply Guy, is an unyieldingly chipper everyman who greets each morning with a smile. Throwing on the same blue shirt, listening to the same tune from another Car(r)ey, 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 greeting, 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 job at the bank. He shrugs, too, when jetpacks fly by him and shootouts happen across busy intersections. And so what if he catches a bullet or gets plummeted by a reckless driver? He’ll just wake up in his bed the next morning with the same stupid smile back on his face. What Guy doesn’t know, but the audience surely will (it’s in all 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 a pretty bleak premise, if you think about it. 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. The film’s director, Shawn Levy, had made almost nothing but noisy and innocuous time-wasters like The Internship and the Night of 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 taking out the robber (something he shouldn’t be able to do), Guy gets his hands on the victim’s sunglasses — a pair of eyewear that allows him to see, like Roddy Piper in They Live!, the secret messages (in this case, powerups and side missions) 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 (Jodie Comer), the pistol-packing woman of his electric dreams. Behind the avatar, she’s actually a game designer named Millie. And Free Guy develops an unlikely romance between the two: “The only non-toxic guy I meet is a robot,” she sighs. The script, written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, 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), who now works for the enemy. The company Millie’s suing is run by a crooked mogul played by Taika Watiti, doing an aggressively unfunny 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.
When it isn’t directly referencing other geek-favored properties, Free Guy is just vaguely evoking them. At the same time, there’s something rather dully anonymous about the fantasy world it creates. Free City it’s called, and it’s, 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 muscly 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 action set pieces have an “insert fun here” quality.
Naturally, the fate of Free City — and the A.I. 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 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. Based in a soft-pedaled existential crisis, Free Guy is all mayhem clogged with innocuous, sugary mush.
Free Guy is currently playing in Theaters nationwide, as of July 13