Written by Anna Harrison
Late July, the frozen steak brand Steak-umm posted a lengthy Twitter thread, replete with steak puns galore, on “societal distrust in experts and institutions, the rise of misinformation, cultural polarization, and how to work toward some semblance of mutually agreed upon information before we splinter into irreconcilable realities.” A frozen thin-sliced steak brand then proceeded to elaborate on our current societal fracturing, making some pretty reasonable points in the process—it was remarkable and remarkably absurd. Yet this is where we are today—brands and corporations on Twitter (most of them much larger than Steak-umm) acting like people, using Twitter to wield millennial and Gen Z jargon as a marketing weapon. It can be funny, it can be thought-provoking, it can be really weird to see Netflix tweet about Nightcrawler’s critique of capitalism while it leeches people away from independent movie theaters.
Free Guy, 20th Century Studios’ latest release (20th Century Studios sounds so naked without “Fox,” doesn’t it?), is all about critiquing unchecked corporate power, pushing for original ideas amidst a sea of sequels and remakes, and sticking it to the man even as it was distributed by a subsidiary of Disney, whose success almost single-handedly relies on fondness for IPs such as Marvel and Star Wars, IPs which have the cinematic world in a chokehold. Even as Free Guy lampoons its creators, it relies on those Disney brands for humor and cultural relevance (just look at its marketing).
But as long as you don’t think too much about it, Free Guy is a whole lot of fun. (Plus, the cameos and musical cues the Disney/Fox merger allowed the film to have are admittedly pretty damn funny.)
Free Guy’s titular hero, played by Ryan Reynolds with his usual charm, is a bit unusual: he’s an NPC (non-playable character) in Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite’s spiritual child, Free City. He goes through the day, hitting the same beats over and over again with his friend Buddy (Lil Rey Howery). He gets up, goes to work as a bank teller, suffers through the havoc that the playable characters wreak on his world, and goes to bed. His routine, however, changes when he spies playable character MolotovGirl (Jodie Comer), who awakens something in Guy that prompts him to break out of his programmed life.
MolotovGirl takes a great interest in Guy because, as it turns out, she created him. (There could be some Freudian analysis done here about how MolotovGirl is Guy’s creator/mother, but also his love interest… just saying.) Behind the computer screen, MolotovGirl goes by Millie, and she and Walter, aka Keys (Joe Keery), had once made an indie game called Free Life back in school, which had NPCs that would grow and evolve, like artificial intelligence, rather than simply go through the motions; the two had sold the game to Soonami Games, but its head, Antwan (Taika Waititi), shelved it and secretly used the code to build Free City. Millie, looking for proof to use against Antwan in her lawsuit, realizes that Guy could be the key.
Director Shawn Levy deftly balances the game and real worlds, seamlessly switching between the two and managing to entwine them organically, and he brings out good performances from all his cast members, proving again that Jodie Comer should be (and will be) a star, and giving hope that maybe Steve Harrington can have some luck with girls after all. (Joe Keery’s hair, by the way, does actually just look like that in real life, as I discovered when I spied him at brunch several years ago.) Waititi’s Antwan is perhaps better suited to be a zany NPC than a smarmy gaming developer, but he has his moments, too; everyone, at some point or another, gets a big belly laugh—or at least a hearty chuckle—from the audience, but underneath is a charming, heartfelt message on the power of creativity and the triumph that comes with not selling your soul to follow the money.
Yeah, it’s a bit of a weird throughline, considering who made the film; it’s hard to praise this as an original blockbuster when it relies so heavily on cultural knowledge of other things, but sometimes you just want to have fun, and Free Guy certainly delivers a sweet dose of it. There are weird video game weapons, Channing Tatum busting out some Fortnite inspired moves, a jacked version of Guy called “Dude” who goes around yelling, “CATCHPHRASE!,” and Taika Waititi acting absolutely out of his mind. It’s not going to win any Oscars, but it did more than enough to win me over.
Free Guy Trailer