At a certain point, theater starved audiences are going to have to admit that they’ve got rose colored glasses on.

Viewers who lived for years as their local movie house are finally starting to make their way back to the big screen on a once-a-month, every-other-week trip to the cinema. 

Because the movie-going experience feels new again, there’s an anticipation that builds up and amplifies their opinion of whatever movie they’re seeing. Event-izing a mediocre film as special due to the fact that it’s seen theatrically creates this idea that the movie they just saw had to be worth it.

For many audiences, Free Guy might be their first trip back to the movie theaters in months or even since March of last year and in their minds, it had to not be a good movie. It had to be a great movie.

The film, bumped several times from its initial July 2020 release, finally made its way to theaters this weekend, with Ryan Reynolds starring as an AI-controlled video game character (or NPC) becoming self-aware and striking out on his own as a good guy in a world where gun violence and bank robberies are commonplace.

Free Guy projects itself to be something different depending on its potential audience: a family-friendly romp for pre-teens, a Deadpool-like spoof of the video game industry for millennials and a hyper-stylized action-adventure for older audiences.

In trying to serve all these different groups at once, director Shawn Levy succeeds at none of them, creating an overly mediocre feature that exceeds the bounds of its fantastic premise.

Reynolds’ Guy is essentially a carbon copy of the classic Will Ferrell character Buddy the Elf from Elf, only as a hopeless romantic daydreamer replacing the childlike wonder.

As Guy begins to understand his own free will, Reynolds does a solid job removing some of the polished shine from Guy’s almost robotic personality, but it’s only surface level character work. The script doesn’t really explore Guy’s inner monologue, and although a romance between his NPC and real-world Milly evokes shades of Spike Jonze’s sci-fi drama Her, it’s played innocent to the point of being timid.

The film’s two main comedic talents, Reynolds and Taika Waititi, never share a second of screen time and the humor lands only about a third of the time. As the primary antagonist of the film, Waititi makes some interesting choices to differentiate from his regularly lovable persona, but his Antoine is incredibly demure by Waititi standards.

Everything around Reynolds, especially the moments when Guy is off screen entirely, are distinctly unmemorable and bland. In trying to create a larger world around Guy, Levy and screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn drive down the film’s momentum with a subplot about who gets the credit for creating the world of the “Free City” video game to the point where Guy’s self-awareness becomes subservient to a less interesting narrative altogether.

Visually the film has its moments, especially when Guy becomes self-aware of the video game elements of “Free City,” and there’s an endless amount of hidden easter eggs waiting in the background of scenes to be explored on rewatches.

But just like the numerous cameos littered throughout, Free Guy only has pockets of energy that are gone as quickly and spontaneously as they arrived only to leave the final product a jagged mess.

Free Guy is a film that tries exceptionally hard to be a cross between The Truman Show and Ready Player One, but fails to live up to either of those significantly more engaging, interesting movies. Reynolds makes it worth seeing several months from now on a streaming service or home rental thanks to his affable charm, but there isn’t enough quality there to go out of the way to see Free Guy in theaters.

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