2/10 Movies based on personal senses of humor are always hit-or-miss, and Free Guy is a huge, wild miss.
In the open-world video game Free City, Guy (Ryan Reynolds, who also produces), a non-player character who works as a teller at a bank that players constantly rob, begins to buck his programming and start fighting with player characters in ways he wasn’t designed to. His development turns out to be the key to a outlandish conspiracy about prior builds of the game – no one in the writers room on Free Guy had any idea how intellectual property or video game moderation or servers work, so I’m not even going to try to describe what’s going on. It’s all too far removed from reality to make sense in summary, and it doesn’t make any sense during the runtime either. The point is, Ryan Reynolds is here, and he’s got jokes.
When Disney acquired Fox, one of the central worries among fans of Fox’s recent offerings was that they wouldn’t let Reynolds play his foul-mouthed, ultra-violent Deadpool character, who has become very popular in recent years. Studios had been reluctant to release an R-rated comic book movie, despite several examples of how awesome and popular they could be already existing, so having gone through that process and almost not getting to see Reynolds’ Deadpool get his time to shine, it was very disheartening to see his rights acquired by a studio that doesn’t make R-rated movies. They even conducted an immediate experiment with a PG-13 cut of Deadpool 2, titled Once Upon a Deadpool, that playfully spoofed The Princess Bride’s framing device to cut out all the gore and harsh language, to see if it could work – both the standard and PG-13 cuts released in 2018, within the timeframe of Fox’s sale to Disney, which spanned from Dec. 14, 2017 to March 20, 2019.
Free Guy is straightforwardly another experiment in trying stretch Reynolds running his mouth into a feature-length movie while keeping it PG-13. This is apparent from the general tone and context – you can’t have a movie focused on Ryan Reynolds making pop references and not beg comparisons to Deadpool, and Reynolds himself drew the comparison multiple times during the run-up to release. They also repeat a lot of specific jokes, most prominently drawing Reynolds’ head onto body builder Aaron W. Reed to make a quick new villain and the barrage of Disney references in the movie’s climax, which echo the constant shoutouts to Fox movies in Deadpool in style and tone.
The potentially stale humor isn’t really the problem as much as how much time is spent going over the plot. This may have been out of concern that a movie set in a video game wouldn’t be easy for some viewers to wrap their heads around – we’re more than 20 years past The Matrix, but there are still some stragglers – but the video game setting isn’t what’s confusing about Free Guy, it’s the corporate espionage plot at its base.
Millie Rusk (Jodie Comer) believes the game they’re playing is built out of a previous game she designed that was purchased, or in other scenes she says it was stolen – even that first critical detail is unclear. It’s all offscreen backstory anyway. Whatever happened, she thinks there’s a macguffin in-game that can help her lawsuit, and the circumstances keep changing, and they keep stopping the action to explain the circumstances so viewers can keep up. Viewers usually like to understand the stakes of whatever dumb action scene they’re seeing, at least on a physical level, so there’s a real storytelling concern there, but in this case the plot such a mad lib that anyone paying attention will come out of those scenes with more questions than answers.
With a comic actor like Reynolds who Hollywood seems to have decided to let run free, you kind of have to take the good with the bad. Personal senses of humor and line delivery are almost never what make movies funny. The comedies that really last are based in visual humor and joke conflicts – it’s not actors delivering one-liners, it’s the building blocks of film itself used as a joke. Check out Airplane! Death of Stalin or The Big Lebowski for clear examples of that difference.
Unfortunately, Free Guy hangs its entire hat on Reynolds’ personal sense of humor, and movies just need more than that. He’s obviously skilled at this particular acting niche and can be inserted into some fine films – the Hitman’s Bodyguard series, where he’s not in charge and shares the screen with several other top actors having just as much fun as he is, springs immediately to mind, and he’s generally got a reputation for consistently being the best parts of terrible buddy comedies.
It’s nice that he’s having so much fun and gets so much control over his work now, and we wouldn’t get gems like Deadpool if he weren’t allowed to fool around and lay some big eggs like Free Guy, but that doesn’t make it any more fun to watch.