This review contains spoilers.
Free Guy (2021)
Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: Matt Lieberman, Zak Penn
3½ out of 4 stars.
I’m pretty neutral on Ryan Reynolds. I enjoy his brand of comedy for the most part but my interest in Free Guy sparked almost entirely from knowing that Joe Keery was in the cast (because I’m a huge Stranger Things fan) and also that Shawn Levy was the director. In looking over his filmography as part of my research for my Coffee & Contemplation podcast, I realized that I often like his style and the stories he tends to tell; in particular, the Night at the Museum franchise, Arrival, The Famous Jett Jackson,and, obviously, Stranger Things. Like those properties, Free Guy seemed to be another effective blend of pastiche and originality. Plus Taika Waititi was in the cast, too? Sign me up.
The film itself far exceeded my expectations. Free Guy is celebratory rather than pretentious in its homage (Tron, anyone?) yet carves out its own style, its own characters. How it manages to do so is nigh untraceable but it doesn’t really matter because you’re too busy enjoying the result. There are scant few things I didn’t enjoy about it — more on that later — and even in the spots where it doesn’t quite work, there’s a palpable spirit of enthusiasm. Some reviews criticize the film for not delving deeper into the more serious questions and concepts Free Guy indirectly presents — the nature of Artificial Intelligence, corporate strategy, sequels versus original IP, what qualifies as a soul — but I would argue that the film doesn’t avoid these subjects outright, either. Many critics are ragging on the real-world characters but I buy the characterizations and believe their performances are deeper than they’re getting credit for. Where some have cited that the Soonami storyline drags the film down in the middle, I would question whether Guy’s story — genuinely fun and entertaining though it is — would be able to sustain itself alone, without a supporting plot. Maybe. But I, for one, appreciate the range. The trailers also make it very clear that deep, intellectual exploration is not the point here. Science-Fiction is rife with such explorations and there’s plenty to be found elsewhere if you’re looking for that but in Free Guy you can expect a buoyant, fun energy at its core. However, I was surprised at the — go with me — level of subtlety at play. No, seriously. There is no shortage of loud, brash, even salacious humor but it never goes too far off the rails and is even quite effectively balanced by some aspects that practically fly under the radar.
Given how much turmoil the last year+ has handed us, I wanted to throw myself into the fun spirit along with everyone else but knew I couldn’t if it came down to a love triangle; a contest, Guy vs. Keys. I mean, there’d be no question, right? All joking aside, I’ve been on a bit of a journey with Keery’s Steve Harrington and Stranger Things as a whole has become pretty important to me so while I might be predisposed to get more invested in Keys, I’m probably in the minority and Guy is, after all, the film’s protagonist. Reynolds is the marquee name. I just didn’t know if I had it in me to watch that play out.
However, the ending is so much better than I could have imagined. There’s some heartbreak, but ultimately, it’s a happy ending for everyone; even and especially for Millie, too. The writing is superb. The “one-you-love-has-been-in-front-of-you-the-whole-time” trope is not new and I don’t always jive with it, but I find that it really works here. Some critics have flagged the romance as too obvious and cheesy, but I buy the characterization of Millie and Keys and believe their relationship is deeper than it’s getting credit for. Keys isn’t just pining for Millie the entire film; they have history, a long-standing working relationship, they argue, they have chemistry (as characters and actors), and their circumstances — wacky as they are — make sense within the world of the film itself. Whether or not you buy the conceit of Guy being programmed as a “love letter” to Millie, by the time Guy shares this truth with her, his honesty sort of “frees” her from being unknowingly connected to a fabrication and gives her all the information to make her own choice, just as she did for him.
The real-world and Free-City-world feel equally balanced, along with the arcs of the characters in each, both in the writing and the visuals. The cinematography (George Richmond, Rocketman) deftly shifts between cinematic and gaming styles. The cameos and Easter eggs are present and delightful but don’t distract from the center narrative. Guy’s story is our A-Plot, the Soonami story is the B-Plot, but the characters’ comparable screen time, combined with (I believe) dynamite performances by Jodie Comer and Keery, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Britne Oldford, all synchronize for a beautiful and successful ending. This goes for the romantic pair, the best friends, and the supporting roles. The only thing I’d have changed about the ending to their story would be to let us actually see that kiss!
The only pieces that didn’t work for me mostly surrounded the underuse of Taika Waititi as Antwan and some of the humor. For all that the marketing emphasized his role, Waititi seems to be doing a lot with so very little. The film’s antagonist might be the one aspect where the film would have benefitted from easing back on the humor in favor of complexity. Waititi would have been more than up to that task; but perhaps it weighed the film down too much? In any case, I find myself wondering and hoping for a plethora of deleted scenes awaiting us on the eventual Blu-ray. And, apart from that, I found myself tired of the “gamers are lame dudes who live in their mom’s basement and never get laid” joke even just after watching the multiple trailers. It’s directly at odds with the appearances of Professional Streamers. I’m not sure that we needed that particular brand of degrading humor in a movie that is otherwise very uplifting; even respectful of gamer culture.
Beyond that, though this is an overwhelming net positive. I already want to see the film again and look forward to the conversations that it will inevitably inspire. Will it change the world? No, but it is a huge mood boost, and amongst these dark times, sometimes that’s exactly what we all need.