Monday, October 11, 2021

Free Guy

Spoiler-free!

What do you get when you remake The Truman Show but update it for modern day by adding elements of Ready Player One, and a bit of the Groundhog Day concept, and make Ryan Reynolds the lead?

You get a summer movie that actually feels like a summer movie.

Here's a shocker: this movie isn't two hours of Reynolds running around in a videogame world making quippy jokes. There's like, a story. And stakes. Remember those? There are characters who have goals, and an antagonist who's in their way. And they're the good guys because their goals are moral, and the antagonist is the bad guy because his goals are immoral, and the story is written so that we'll root for the good guys and have a satisfying sense of resolution if they succeed.

"No duh, Sarah, that's how movies work." Yep. It's weird. I wish I could say I wasn't starstruck by a mere coherent plotline, but here we are. And I know it's not only me. "It's deeper than I expected" is a popular comment on this film. Why? Because it has real-world characters too, with visible character arcs? Because there's an NPC in a videogame who gains self-awareness and freewill and that makes us consider what human value he has? Not exactly mind-blowing stuff here. And yet, it is. Because movies have been without basic things like moral standards, thought, or storytelling coherence for so long that we forgot how essential they are. There's a romantic subplot that's resolved for more reason than "the movie is ending now," and it felt earth-shatteringly original. 

Shawn Levy understands how to assemble a competent film. "Earth-shattering," he is not. Something else is up here.

While I appreciate that this movie returns to a certain filmmaking standard, that's not to say that it's automatically great. The spell only lasted during the runtime, and now I'm left to mull over how exceptionally sad it is that so little could feel like so much. Because sure, the movie feeds us what I've been craving, but in bites, not meal-sized portions. To say Free Guy puts in more effort than recent action-comedy flicks isn't saying anything, really. They have funny guy Ryan Reynolds at their disposal, and they let him do his thing. But too much so. More often it's more like they leave him—to ad-lib quips on top of normal scenes, instead of writing set-up and pay-off jokes for him to elevate. Most of the comedic scenes are not only unnecessary but totally humorless. (Hello Channing Tatum.)

They let Taika Waititi have fun too, and I liked hating the character. But did they think we wouldn't notice he was the bad guy unless they had him spell it out for us? "I love money, I want more money, I don't care about anything but money." We get it. A little subtlety wouldn't kill you, and would ring truer, even for an over-the-top character. And of course, they can't help but wedge in some political talking points, some that clash with the actual intent of the movie. I'd have cut 10-20 minutes from the runtime, mostly in cameos and people watching events from the real world. That got in the way. There are also three separate sequences that feel like the "final battle." One was expensive, one "funny," and one had narrative relevance. Guess which one I'd keep?

Even in action movies the last thing I care about is the action...

My favorite aspect was the real-people characters played by Jodie Comer and Joe Keery. They own the heart of the film, baby-sized as it is. Keery's relevance to the plot was especially a nice surprise. I was fully expecting him to be a side character meant for more jokes only. In fact, I wish there had been more real-life all around. Comer's character is even more essential on paper but doesn't feel it because we see her mostly in the game, where she lacks her real-world personality. We thought that Reynolds' star-power, the humor, and high concept actiony videogame fun was the point, but it's not, not really. It's dressing. Free Guy remembers that better than most, but not quite well enough.

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