Friday, August 27, 2021

Game Theory: FREE GUY

Free Guy is nakedly manipulative nonsense pop filmmaking—but it works on its own terms. It helps that it’s not exactly the movie it appears to be at first. The picture opens in a video game, a combination of Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto in which we set our scene. Guy (Ryan Reynolds) tells us the rules. The sunglass wearers airdrop in to cause mayhem: carjackings, robberies, assassinations, and so on. They’re the players. Guy doesn’t know that. He’s just a Non-Player Character, a slave to the routine of his programming. One day he sees a pretty player (Jodie Comer) and falls in love. He has to know her. Along the way, he’ll learn he’s in a video game and tries to take control of his own destiny, code be damned. The problem here strikes me as the difficulty in caring about a character in a game. Remember when critics used to call bad CG spectacles “like watching someone else playing a video game?” That fell by the wayside lately, maybe because so many climaxes play that way, and maybe because Twitch and like have improbably proved a popular pastime among the younger crowd. Still, watching this phony world it is impossible to invest in the unreality. The concussive needle drops, busy heads-up displays, and loud gunfire have all the weight and impact of so many pixels. Then there’s Reynolds himself, who plays the guy like a human version of Emmett from The Lego Movie (down to the love of brand-nameless coffee) with his own particular brand of terminal insincerity melded to saccharine sentimentality. (What a strange blend of tones he’s been hawking in every role since Deadpool.) Luckily the movie uses this a jumping off point of an actual human story, turning its broad video game spoofery—with some fine nods toward violent games’ sociopathy and shallowness—into something a little more real.

I found myself relaxing into the movie’s artificial charms when it pretty early on reveals what it’s actually getting up to. It turns out Comer is, in real life, a coder who thinks the bestselling game’s designer (Taika Waititi) stole the work she and her partner (Joe Keery) did and used it as the basis of the open world software that made him rich. So she’s become a power player in hopes of uncovering proof for a lawsuit. Her unexpected realization? Her A.I. ideas might be what woke Guy from his routine. So the fake world is given some unexpected stakes—and it’s worth enjoying the lark when it might end up in actual real world consequences. There’s even some slight dancing around some Star Trek ethics of being, with the NPCs in the servers slowly dawning to their little riff on the allegory of the cave. (The movie is the junior high brain teaser to The Matrix’s grad school seminar.) The light gloss of corporate espionage cuts well against the empty quips on Reynolds’ side, and goes one step further into a secret (and only a little strained) rom-com buried under layers of genre elements. No matter how strange Reynolds is playing a proxy love interest for a totally predictable flesh-and-blood programmer, it somehow lands the emotional arc for Comer with some agreeable satisfaction.

Director Shawn Levy is nothing if not a consummate professional. He’s capable of sturdy big budget studio mechanics in ways we take for granted sometimes because he makes it look easy. With the likes of ensemble family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen and robot boxing drama Real Steel—two surprisingly satisfying efforts for which I have lingering affection—he’s proved he knows his way around hitting the right rousing beats with clean, legible throughlines and visual cohesion. There can be a charm to watching an oversized smooth shiny object of a big screen experience. Here Levy pushes a little too hard on pandering referentiality—does the ending really need two back-to-back overt references to its corporate sibling’s biggest sci-fi properties?—but stages some competent phony action. It takes the repetitive violence of video games and plays its mind-numbing senselessness for the shallowness it is. No wonder Guy, with his aw-shucks disbelief, wants more. The script finds a few good jokes here and there, and hooks into some ideas about games and modern life and creativity. (That Waititi is the mouthpiece for the movie’s swipes at corporate sequel culture is amusing, and ironic.) And in the end it’s somehow a little sweet and genuine in the midst of all its foolery. I still didn’t care about Reynold’s Guy and his computer friends, and didn’t entirely buy the ways the code of the game interacts with its makers, but sometimes when a movie plows ahead believing something so intently while making it the cornerstone of its emotional appeal, you just go with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment