Free Guy’s heart may just win you over before its constant pop culture references wear you down.
On paper, Free Guy is a movie about a bank teller named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who one day realizes that he’s actually a non-playable character in a popular online video game called Free City. While Guy is mostly interested in using his newfound awareness to win the heart of the Free City player he’s fallen in love with (Millie, a.k.a. Jodie Comer’s “Molotov Girl”), he soon finds himself in the middle of a game development conspiracy that could ultimately lead to Free City’s shutdown and the end of his world.
In reality, however, Free Guy is a movie about references. While many of those references are little more than brief nods to popular video games (GTA Online is the most obvious target, though Free Guy finds time to pay homage to Fortnite, Halo, and more), even the film’s basic structure feels like a compilation of various concepts that we’ve seen before. Honestly, one of the best ways to properly describe the movie is to take a page out of its playbook and use references.
Free Guy is basically The Truman Show combined with The Matrix, with just a dash of They Live, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Total Recall tossed in for flavor. Like Wreck-it-Ralph and Pixels, it tries to comedically examine popular video game characters, worlds, and tropes, but its closest spiritual companions may just be Ready Player One and Space Jam: A New Legacy. Like in those films, Free Guy sometimes hopes that you’ll find time to entertain yourself by scanning the environment and playing “spot the reference.” Between those Easter egg set pieces, the film often falls back on CGI-heavy action sequences and rapid-fire quips that sometimes feel like the PG-13 versions of Deadpool jokes.
It’s hard to say that Free Guy is too obsessed with references when some of the film’s best moments come in the form of surprise cameos and visual gags that will almost certainly make most theaters audiences howl with laughter (should you happen to see this in a movie theater). I’ll instead say that if you found it hard to get through Ready Player One and Space Jam: A New Legacy‘s brand of pop culture obsession, then there’s a good chance you’ll have the same problem with Free Guy.
But then even if you enjoy most of the movie’s references, you’ll likely find that some elements of the film’s referential sense of humor are… odd. For instance, there’s an early visual gag about product placement in the Free City game, but the rest of the movie is packed with product placement for everything from gaming computers to headphones. There’s also a joke about the futility of creating something original when you can just make a sequel, which feels a little out of place in a movie that may be an “original” but is getting quite a bit of mileage out of pulling material from giant properties.
Maybe the idea was for these scenes to come across as Wayne’s World-style moments of meta-humor, but given that Free Guy’s product placements and dependence on popular properties are otherwise presented so matter of factly, these brief gags ultimately feel like a futile attempt to smile under the weight of the production machine.
It also has to be said that Free Guy’s biggest plot holes abuse the privilege many of us are willing to extend to such inconsistencies. There are moments of NCIS-style tech jargon used to justify major plot points that really stand out in a movie that otherwise makes some surprisingly accurate observations about modern gaming. They probably won’t ruin the movie for you, but any time spent rolling your eyes at the idea that these developers wouldn’t instantly recognize that Guy is an NPC in the game they made is time spent missing the latest visual gag.
The biggest problem with Free Guy’s script though is that it brings up interesting ideas that ultimately don’t get a lot of room to breathe. Writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn (the latter of whom worked on Ready Player One) touch on fascinating topics such as the struggles of video game developers, the ego and profit-driven nature of many major game development studios, and how platforms such as Twitch and YouTube can influence the culture of popular games. But the movie is quick to drown those sparks out with a blaring pop soundtrack, candy-colored CGI action sequences, and, in at least one notable instance, unfortunate outdated jokes about basement-dwelling gamers.
There are too many times when Free Guy fails to explore the potential of its unique premise. This was clearly never meant to be a complicated examination of the nature of existence or even a deep dive into the most controversial aspects of video game culture, but it’s hard not to look down on the movie’s most generic moments when it regularly brings up more interesting ideas and then quickly casts them aside.
What’s really amazing though is that Free Guy’s biggest problems do little to diminish the appeal of its two greatest qualities: its commitment to absurdity and surprising warmth.
It starts with the cast. Reynolds is hardly an “everyman,” but the way he makes even the most absurd jokes work certainly comes in handy here. Comer’s comedic timing and ability to add surprising emotional weight to otherwise throwaway lines also remind us that she’s still in the early days of what will surely be a great career. Elsewhere, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Kerry, and Utkarsh Ambudkar lead the film’s fitting cast of supporting players.
This show is clearly stolen, however, by the brilliant Taika Waititi. There’s something to be said for actors in movies who recognize what the tone is around them and decide to go completely over-the-top with their performances, which describes Waititi’s performance to a tee.
Free Guy’s cast is clearly having such a good time with every ridiculous line, strange scene, and surprising little moment that it’s almost impossible to not get caught up in their enthusiasm and find a way to have a good time.
So far as that goes, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Free Guy sometimes reaches Ted Lasso levels of positivity and genuineness. Whether you’re a fan of gaming or not, it’s hard not to root for Guy as he essentially tries to, in the words of Bo Burnham, obey all the traffic laws in Grand Theft Auto 5 in order to grow as a person and in-game character. Guy’s ability to appreciate the little things in his world isn’t just a human message but a particularly clever observation about how NPCs may be uniquely able to appreciate the work that goes into video game world-building that we sometimes don’t take the time to appreciate because it’s located off the more obvious paths.
There’s also something to be said for the Comer and Kerry-led subplot about indie developers struggling to push an original idea in an age of big studio productions. Even if that plot does feel somewhat awkward given the amount of property flexing that’s going on (and ends on a bit of a cheesy note), it’s ultimately a nice little nod to creators who too often don’t get credit for their work.
Like many of the best video games ever made, Free Guy is meant to be a good time above all else. It’s frustrating that the movie ultimately fails to do more with its cast and premise, but its combination of warm hugs and scenery-chewing eventually find that “dumb fun” sweet spot. At the very least, you may want to find a way to see it sooner or later just so the sheer joy of its best surprise isn’t ruined for you.