Free Guy is a film that lives and dies on one consideration: how much do you like Ryan Reynolds's "thing"? I have grown to dislike it very much. But by all available evidence the movie has turned out to be one of 2021's most successful crowdpleasers, as one of the few releases in the post- (intra?)-pandemic recovery summer to perform at or above box office expectations, and the only one of those that is neither horror nor horror-adjacent. And it's hard to just breeze in and out with a dismissive "it's terrible!" review under those circumstances, even though "it's terrible!" was my very breezy response as I waltzed out of the theater - a fairly crowded theater, certainly the most crowded I've been to since the Before Times in early 2020. Also a theater that contained only one person who was audibly having a good time throughout, but she was being loud enough in her enjoyment to make up for the rest of us.

But anyway, that gets us back to: Ryan Reynolds's "thing". It's a very particular thing, and I can't conceive of Free Guy working with literally any other movie star out there right now, because of how carefully it has been built around Reynolds's exact screen presence and comic persona. To wit: a very big, cheerful, enthusiasm, with a toothy smile plastered on the actor's face, but laced with a very canned, oily insincerity that makes it feel like he's either putting you on, or he's a malfunctioning robot. So the most successful kind of Ryan Reynolds star vehicles - indeed, the only ones that seem to be even a little bit capable of turning a profit or gaining any kind of traction with audiences, as we have over a decade of evidence to determine - are those where he's playing a venomously sarcastic asshole, as in Deadpool and Deadpool 2; or where he's playing a nonperson simulating emotions, which is what we get here.

Free Guy, as is pretty much front and center in the ad campaign, and somewhat more subtly revealed in the film itself, is set in the world of a video game - Free City, which appears to be a combination between Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto. I have played none of GTA and only enough of Fortnite to confirm that I didn't enjoy it, so take this with a grain of salt, but I'm not really sure you can actually combine those two things successfully. But we'll get back to whether or not Free Guy is good at video games. What matters for right now is that Free City is populated with a decent-sized civilization of non-playable characters, one of whom is Guy (Reynolds) the bank teller, a character whose instructions are to get on the ground when the player bursts into the bank to steal money, where he and his security guard buddy Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) banter good-naturedly as bullets fly above them. That is, in its entirety, his life. And Guy is fine with that, until the day that a specific player named MolotovGirl (Jodie Comer) comes into the bank and triggers something within Guy, causing him to burst out of the bounds of his set program, and to feel feelings. Shortly thereafter, he accidentally shoots a player character and takes the sunglasses that player's avatar is wearing, and thus is able to see Free City from the player's point of view - he is. indeed, able to play the game, though at least for right now, he has no clue that's what's going on, or that he is a simulated being in a simulated world.

To their credit, Free Guy's writers - Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn - wanted to make sure there was a reason for this. To their shame, the explanation they offer is very bad. Out in the real world, we learn that Free City is at the heart of a small, mostly hidden controversy: some years ago, best friends and programming partners "Keys" (Joe Keery, the person you get from Central Casting when you ask them for "harmlessly cute white boy nerd") and Millie (Comer) wrote the code for a game, Life Itself, they thought would revolutionise the industry: an fanciful urban environment where the NPCs all had AI and could learn and evolve as people, and the player's task was to sit around and watch them. Setting aside whether this would have been anything remotely like the hit that Keys and Millie, and Free Guy, obviously thought it would have been - I sure as fuck wouldn't play it, but there are a lot of niches in the world of gaming, and it's a natural enough next step for the Heavy Rain -style visual novel - where they got in trouble was selling something to Soonami Games and its wretched owner, Antwan (Taika Waititi). I say "selling something" because it's not clear what they actually sold. Neither the code nor the build of Life Itself, because the entire conflict is built around how Millie is convinced that Antwan stole those things and made them the foundation of Free City, and that it would be illegal for him to have done so. It definitely made sense to me in the moment of watching it, I can give the film that much. At any rate, Millie is of course right, and the reason Guy is starting to evolve is that he's a barely-altered version of one of the Life Itself NPCs, simply developing self-awareness and autonomy they way he was always destined to. Which merely tips the question deeper into the realm of, so why did Antwan decide that a walking simulator designed solely to allow artificial intelligences to develop inside of it would be the appropriate basis for his Grand Theft Auto clone? It is very clearly not because he wanted artificially intellgent NPCs.

Now, is that all nitpicking? Sure, it's all nitpicking. But it is nitpicking that the film encourages with all its might, by spending a simply devastating percentage of its miserable 115-minute running time outside of the game, and in the Soonami offices where Keys (currently working there as a game moderator) tries to figure out what Antwan stole, while dodging both his boss and his suck-up coworker Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar), while Millie hunts through the game as a player - she is, of course, MolotovGirl. I am tempted to say that every single minute spent in the real world is a minute wasted, though of course that's not true of every minute: we need to at least get context for the plot of how Guy is a player and all. But we get so much more than that - a good third of the film, I'd say, and all of the narrative intrigue. Basically it's like The Truman Show if the tiny little subplot about Natasha McElhone as the former extra turned protester was expanded to the point where it was, arguably, the main point of the film. And not to put too fine a point on it, all of this material is simply dreadful: it makes no sense and gives all the time and evidence we need for that to become unmissably clear, and it depends on some very bad performances to keep pushing it forward - Keery is an aggressively unmemorable screen presence, and Waititi is given to some borderline-unwatchable mugging as a showily "hip" middle-aged man whose delight in flinging slang terms just reveals his utter cluelessness as a human. It's a deep-down terrible performance off-putting enough to make me wonder if I need to re-evaluate ever having enjoyed Waititi in anything.

But anyways, all of this is a distraction from the main point - that is, indeed, chiefly why it is so extremely awful to watch. And the main point is: Reynolds being an insincere, unctuous goofball who gradually learns more about what's going on around him. There's nothing new or interesting about the scenario per se - basically it's just any given below-par "the Holodeck is sentient!" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager, with endless pop culture jokes in lieu of Kate Mulgrew looking concerned - so the hook is obviously meant to be that it will be fun to watch Reynolds in particular go through these motions. And I guess it's not bad at that. The pop culture jokes can be pretty bad - many cameos from celebrity gamers, all of whom seem awfully chagrined by the cheesy dialogue they've been provided with; three gags in quick succession at the end where Disney reminds us that they own everything in the world including the former 20th Century Fox (Free Guy is the first Twentieth Century release produced substantially under Disney's management), and my stomach turns to a boiling sea of acid - but mostly the gag is always some variant on "Ryan Reynolds holds his mouth in an expression of gee-whiz enthusiasm, but his eyes look confused", and that gag more or less works. Whether it works for 115 minutes, I certainly would say no. And whether it is specifically improved by squashing it into a half-assed parody of video game visual language that reeks of "hello, fellow kids" trying-too-hard, I would say no to that as well. But there's basically no way in which I overlap with this film's target audience, so what I would say is surely of no importance.