The great big handsome-goofy face of Ryan Reynolds looms out of the screen in this fantasy comedy from screenwriter Matt Lieberman and director Shawn Levy (of the Night at the Museum franchise). It’s an undemanding and cheerfully silly riff on the themes of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and what the heck we’re all doing in this big old universe of ours: as if someone took The Truman Show or Inception – or even The Lego Movie – and stripped out every serious satirical ambition, replacing it with M&M-coloured spectacle. The result is not something that’s in any way challenging, but Reynolds is so puppyishly eager to please.
Reynolds plays a normal, boring guy whose name is Guy (amusingly, it is never clear if this is his actual given name, as in Guy Crouchback, or the more generic “guy”). He smiles incessantly, wears a bland, short-sleeved blue shirt and goes to work every day as a bank teller in a serenely marvellous-looking modern city, resembling Vancouver. There, he hangs out with his best friend, Buddy – again: generic or given name? – played by Lil Rel Howery, but his bank is always being hit by heists, which he greets with the same imperturbable smileyness. Gradually, Guy realises that he is an NPC, or non-player character, in a video game: a quirk or flaw in the algorithm means that he has hyperevolved into an AI state of free will and agency, able to question what is going on. This astonishes the game’s evil corporate owner Antoine (Taika Waititi), and also the designers Millie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery) whose concept Antoine ripped off. And Millie realises that she will have to enter the game as a player, befriend Guy and enlist his help in getting back their intellectual property – before, of course, falling in love with this clueless pixelated lunk.
Perhaps Reynolds is the only possible casting here, as his boilerplate handsomeness is, with age, making him look more and more eerily generic. But he sells the daft concept efficiently enough, and his frowningly earnest grasp of his own utter insignificance in the scheme of things made me wonder what Reynolds would be like in a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, maybe opposite Henry Cavill. There are some incidental laughs here, concerning the other players in the game, including a tough-guy avatar played by Channing Tatum, who is really, in the time-honoured style, a nerdy guy living in his mum’s basement.
Another kind of movie would have made a bigger deal of Guy’s existential crisis, and tried to extract more from this both in terms of comedy and pathos. But Lieberman and Levy – perhaps refreshingly – just see it as a high-concept premise enabling a kind of doomed postmodern romance between Guy and Millie. Free Guy isn’t going to have many MA theses written about it, but it has entertainment value. Is the actual game going to be available as well?
• Free Guy is released on 12 August in Australia, and 13 August in the UK and US.