In the first place, Free Guy, is the sort of movie I’d normally see at home a year after its release. (Or whenever the disc arrived at my library.) This has less to do with the film’s quality than that it doesn’t seem like (and in fact isn’t) the kind of movie which is “necessary” to see on the big screen. It is better on the big screen, to be sure, but, on the other hand, what movie isn’t better on the big screen? As a man with two teenagers who also enjoy movies, the time investment (driving somewhere at a particular time of day) and cost differential (movie tickets x3 versus borrowing a disc for free from the library) are not insubstantial. Most films need to at least promise (and hopefully deliver) a fair bit of spectacle and/or be something I’d not let my kids see.
A couple examples by way of illustration. The Star Wars franchise, as bad as it’s been of late, does deliver on quite a bit of visual spectacle in every installment. Whatever the deficiencies of the plot, dialogue, and acting, I’m virtually assured of a spectacular spaceship scene or several and at least one lightsaber fight. Or take Avengers: Endgame; a movie I saw by myself in a theater mostly because I was traveling for business and needed something to do one evening. I would have waited for a DVD otherwise. Free Guy then, isn’t maybe my usual cinema-going fare, but after not going to the movies for a couple years, the bar was lowered and I’d have gone to see anything with a reasonable chance of enjoyment. Even another *shudder* MCU film.
The plot isn’t complicated really, and it involves the kind of SF AI-wish-fulfillment that some fraction of humanity has been dreaming about for centuries. A pair of young, idealistic programmers have their non-interactive “game” code stolen by an uncultured capitalist pig (Taika Waititi). He then uses it to power his Fortnite/GTA/Saints Row game (called here “Free City”). One of the coders (Jody Comer) suspects they have been ripped off and is fighting to prove it. Her former business partner (Joe Keery) is disillusioned and believes their “game” was a commercial failure. He now works for the villain, not believing that the crass, violent game could have any connection with his original, pure, artistic creation.
The proof becomes possible when Guy (Ryan Reynolds) becomes “free”. He achieves sentience or whatever because of their programming for the AI in the indie game. Look, it’s silly and immature, which is fine for the jokes. Those are funny, though one will probably best appreciate them with at least some experience of online gaming in some form of MMO. No, the real problem is how dumb the idea is that we can “create life” ex nihilo as if we were gods. Truly, it is idiocy. Still, when one lives in a pagan culture, this is the sort of thing one must expect and the real draw here is Reynolds as Guy interacting with his world as a charming and wholesome naïf.
I love stories in which the innocent, naïve, and virtuous triumph over the cynical, worldly-wise, and evil. And this is (largely) that. We need more Truman Burbanks, more Jane Bennets, and yes, more Free Guys. So it’s a mixed bag, but most things are and this leans to the more successful than unsuccessful side of the scales. Sure, the plot ain’t great, but that’s of secondary importance to the gags. And, okay, the YouTuber cameos are pretty weak (and so is Trebek’s, but de mortuis), but there are plenty of others that work well. Frankly, Reynolds is perfectly capable of carrying a film of this weight pretty much on his own. And he pretty much does.
Lastly, I’m pretty sure now I’m not a Taika Waititi fan. I dunno, he was fine as Korg in Thor: Ragnarok, but the bit wore thin by the time Endgame rolled around. His directing of Ragnarok wasn’t any great shakes either. Free Guy is fine. It’s something Hollywood could stand to do more of. A stand-alone action-comedy with a (fairly) original story and characters. It doesn’t chase Oscars and it doesn’t need to build a universe. It entertains, makes some money (I hope), and will live on in later years on cable and streaming.