by Paul Deeter
Turning 30 in 2021 put a lot into perspective as far as my life belongs in society, and with it the relevance of society's life for me. Partly I mean the norm of media's offering of content: video-game trends, TV shows and importantly the hit movies in (or out of) theatres. One of the best things I watched this year was Inside by Bo Burnham, who lamented turning 30 in a song of the same title while also celebrating it mid-pandemic. With the success of Inside came a community of meme-creators on Facebook and Reddit who shared their love and shared feelings with Burnham in this deeply profound project. The success of Inside is a good testament to the size of an audience of millenials who are invested in jokes about self-dread and existentialism amid ironic Internet culture. Feeling included in a target audience of twenty-somethings to early-thirties viewers helps me stay in tune with current film content, even though sometimes I don't take to the trends of today. I loved The Suicide Squad, but I'm not 100% on board for a David Ayer-cut of the original Suicide Squad like many fans are asking for. I'm a long time Spidey fan but I don't have a lick of interest in Venom: Let There be Carnage. It's okay that there are games I don't like by Nintendo while being an avid Switch-gamer. And it's even okay that millennial culture is inevitably going to be out of touch with the Internet culture we so dearly hold. But before this sounds too dismal, let me get to my point. Today I went to see a double feature, first film being Don't Breathe 2, which was problematic but fell into a horror genre that I felt catered to my needs for thrillers. The second film, and by far one of the most audacious and original features of 2021, was Free Guy.
Free Guy is a 2021 comedy-action film by director Shawn Levy, a notorious name for high-grossing (and gross-out) cringey comedies. The bizarre appreciation and success of the Night at the Museum series (outside of the always solid Robin Williams) is beyond me, almost as far-fetched as the idea Levy had for remaking The Pink Panther. These films are bombastic and give a whole new meaning to the term slapstick; they administer a high energy, candy-coated tone that tries to make you laugh every other line. The exception in my distaste for Shawn Levy has to be with his feature Date Night (2010) another original film starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey as a middle-aged married couple who somehow get over their heads in mob crime on a simple night out in NYC. This film (again a box-office success) benefitted from two great lead performances and an otherwise deftly made comedy without the reliance on physical humor. This film is proof to this day that Levy has more than groan-worthy gags up his sleeves, and to boot he has heart.
Free Guy is a big budget action film of over $100 million, invested in starpower and special effects primarily. It stars household name Ryan Reynolds as Guy, a casual living man whose day to day starts with the same outfit he wears everyday for his bank job, after getting a cup of coffee from a coffee shop that serves nothing else. He has a goldfish named Goldie, and a best friend security guard named Buddy (Lil Rel Howery.) Buddy and Guy are happy with their daily lives... even though they get robbed at gunpoint every day. In fact, crime always happens in their Free City, with the criminals identified as "sunglasses people" who walk untouchably through town as they shoot and steal and make chaos everywhere they go. Guy is an NPC (non-playable character, although I'm not sure they ever spell it out) and isn't in control of his life, because he lives in a video game. Anybody who lives in the game is known as an NPC, nobody truly lives in Free City who is real. Free City is something of a Grand Theft Auto landscape, with elements of The Sims and some of the overall humor of the cataclysmically popular game Fortnite. If none of this makes immediate sense to you, then you might not be ready for Free Guy. This is by and large a video-game film, in the same realm of Ready Player One. However Ready Player One was fixed on appealing to 80's gamers, and Free Guy seems set on the Generation Z audience more than anything else. This film is pumped in with so many zoomer friendly cameos and references that you might question if you're actually watching this on a Twitch stream from your PC.
Let's start with what works, and what always works is Ryan Reynolds. I had a conversation with my brother recently about the appeal of A-List actors taking any role offered to them, like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson for example. While his questionable choice of roles landed him Rampage, Skyscraper and San Andreas to name a few monster duds, he seems to ignore choppy writing and deliver some of the worst dialogue with a real sense of charm and authenticity. For example, San Andreas (2015) had a scene that ended with his character parachuting his ex-wife into an abandoned baseball field and as they landed safely he says "I always wanted to go back to fourth base with you." If you cringed (you did, didn't you) imagine Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson saying it, and you might just crack a smile. In the mess that was San Andreas, I found myself smiling every time he was on screen; he just brings it. So does Ryan Reynolds, star of the terrible Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard this same year. His authenticity and quippy delivery to otherwise silly scripting is hard to roll eyes at. I'm saying that Free Guy doesn't have the worst script of 2021, but the stilted writing survives mostly from the lead performance, and our CEO gaming antagonist: Antwan played by Taika Watiti. Reynolds had some of the best jokes of the movie, and made me laugh with jokes as peculiar as his vocal appreciation of the word cappuccino (it's like an avalanche of letters.) The movie has a fair share of humorous dialogue but seems to prefer crashing a car into Guy and running him over again and again throughout the film. But visual gags are Levy's favorite, and the use of a video-gamey alternate reality setting allows him to bounce HUDs (heads up displays) above many characters, feature weapons like the portal-gun from Portal to be used and throw countless other colorful effects across the screen. There's a lot to see here, and while some of it is mind-numbingly overcooked, some of the best jokes are Easter Eggs in the background of bigger setpieces.
The overarching plot which has been compared to The Lego Movie, is a film about an AI in part of a virtual world trying to define himself as an individual (not just a Guy.) The plot extends into the real world as Millie (Jodie Comer), or Molotov Girl in the video game tries to expose the Free City worldwide game for stealing code from her work on as an independent developer. She's suing a larger than life entity accusing the of the company of covering up inappropriate business methods and controversial behavior. Where does that sound familiar? She wants to save the game from being remapped and exploited commercially blah blah blah while Guy is trying to save the citizens of being disintegrated or something (blah blah blah get back to the Portal gun.) The story here is absolutely nothing new, but the paint job tries very hard to be. Like the aforementioned Fortnite gags, I managed to catch some Halo references and was simultaneously oblivious to the multiple Twitch cameos and Youtubers that popped up as cameos in the film. However, the kids in the top row of the theater went gaga when Ninja (I think) from Twitch showed up pretending to hype up this fictional game. It's moments like these: Fortnite dances, gamer slang, etc, that really pander to a very certain type of audience.
This film has some jokes for the adults but seems to be a kids movie at heart, despite its pervasive violence. I'm no prude but I felt a tad uncomfortable at some of the bone-breaking fights that took place here, even more so than the R-Rated Sopranos prequel trailer we got before the film. But isn't that like the video-games that Gen-Z play today, a large culture of tweenagers already exposing themselves to hardcore violence via GTA and other mature titles. This movie has no shame in going overboard, but still tries to hit home with a "being the good guy" conclusion (as if kids will be catching thieves instead of robbing banks.) The film's frenetic pacing is enough to dizzy any of us, but again feels pandered towards the easily distracted youngsters of gaming today. Will a teenager like Free Guy? I'd say it's a better bet than an oldster like me. I had some smiles from the many video-game jokes, but felt out of the loop more often than not. My biggest enjoyment was probably Taika Watiti as the evil CEO whose behavior is so confusing and erratic I doubt he took many non-improvisational notes for the film. But it's okay that I missed some big references, because Marvel fans more dedicated than I do catch tons more easter eggs than I ever will in the latest MCU movies. Free Guy doesn't cater to my interests, but that doesn't mean it's entirely insincere. There's a very sweet romantic core to this film, and the performances are great. I won't spoil anything, but there's a few gasp-worthy cameos to note as well. Free Guy may not find its audience, but it knows who to direct the jokes at. And if a flossing Channing Tatum isn't enough to crack me up, it may just do that for a younger culture than my own. I'm curious to know what the Gen-Z will take away from Free Guy and I hope they'll enjoy it.
It's Gen-Z catered madness, and that's okay, Zoomer.