Sunday, March 27, 2022

Free Guy (2021).

It's not often that I get a chance to use words like Appearance and Reality around here.  I mean, it's not like I haven't used them in a sentence before on this blog.  If I had to take a bet on it, then my guess is odds are even that I've done just that, sometimes more than once.  However, using those words in the course of an article is not the same as turning to something like a discussion of the topics or ideas contained in each of them.  That's because in some ways a movie like Free Guy can surprise you.  I'll admit, when I saw the first trailers for the film, my initial reaction was to ask myself if I was just looking at maybe another Ready Player One clone.  I've long since made my opinions on that whole debacle known before.  I think that whole movie was such a dispiriting experience, that it at least helps explain the almost immediate skepticism I had to the first preview release of this one.  Instead, I have to ask whether its possible I've been given an opportunity to ponder a few questions related to the perennial struggle between the topics of truth and illusion.  If that sounds like a tall order, or if things seem to be getting "out there" a bit too soon, then perhaps its best to start things out at ground level, and go a bit into the background of today's film.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the basic concept for the movie began way back in 2016, as an idea in the mind of screenwriter Matt Lieberman.  Here's how the writer described the beginning of things in his own words.  "I’d been a professional screenwriter for a while. I’d sold Christmas Chronicles. I’d worked in the Disney writer’s program for a couple of years, which was great. I’d gotten open writing assignments like Short Circuit and Scoob! Even Addams Family by then. I was definitely feeling a little stuck in a place. It is more an autobiography than I’d be willing to admit. I felt stuck and I had this idea, I’d been kicking it around for a while and I knew it was a good idea. Five years ago this month, I sat down and knocked it out, really quickly".  If there's anything to be frustrated about this information, it's that we're given just the scarcest details as to how the story idea came about.

The good news is the reader doesn't have to go away empty-handed.  Lieberman's admission to an element of autobiography in the story can help give an idea of where it came from.  His comments about feeling "stuck in place" help situate the initial creative idea as stemming from, or growing out of a slight mid-life crisis situation.  It's the sort of thing that can happen if a person starts living life at the rote, just-going-through-the-motions level.  It's a pitfall that anyone can trip into if they're not careful.  This sense of "stuckness" appears to have been the catalyst, allowing the artist's imagination to cough up a story concept which acts as a neat reflection of the writer's circumstance.  Lieberman continues: 

"I wrote the first draft in less than three weeks.  A lot of that stuff is very much still in the movie. It’s crazy.  I’d been kicking around the idea for a while.  I knew what it was.  There were pieces of talent that were interested in talking about it as an idea, as a pitch maybe. I had a good sense of what it needed to be when I started out...I started the idea as, “What if you have the cheat codes to life? What if you could walk around and see power-ups? Oh, then you would be in Grand Theft Auto.” I backed into it that way. Once I had that, it all started falling together really quickly. I relate to NPCs in a lot of ways. Like a lot of writers are, I’m a habitual guy. I’m very much in my lane. My wife says I’m a cartoon character. I wear the same three sets of clothes all the time. The Blue Shirt Guy was me for a while.

"I was thinking a lot about Truman Show and Cabin in the Woods. I’m a high-concept guy. I love great, high-concept movies. I don’t know what they are called in [Cabin in the Woods] — the executive guys. I set it up the same way. Who are these guys? Are the two worlds related? I wanted them to have a scene or two of that where you weren’t even sure if these were part of the same world or not. It just naturally evolved from there (web)".  It's the mention of The Truman Show that gets my attention.  By bringing that film up, Lieberman seems to have provided us with our first clue to the kind of movie he had in mind, even during the course of those first round of drafts.  It's also maybe now that my earlier comment about Appearance and Reality begins to make perhaps the slightest bit of sense.  It's an issue that the Carrey movie is more or less obsessed with from the first reel to the last.  It's also possible that this obsession is part of the reason for why it has stuck around for so long.  There's just something about the conflict or the quest for the reality behind the appearances that is appealing to the human spirit on some fundamental level.  Or at least there's one explanation for it.  Whatever the case, I'd say that's as good a place as any in which to get started on a story born out of one man's mid-life crisis.

The Story. 

Even if you've never met him, we all know someone like Guy (Ryan Reynolds).  He's the fellow that turns up here and there, every now and again.  The faces may change, yet the personality is always the same.  He'll probably never be a rich man, nor is his life on the rocks.  That's another thing you always know about him.  His position in the grand scheme of things is something else that never changes.  He occupies that odd, yet somehow comfortable enough niche in the middle of life's totem pole.  Folks like Guy are neither high nor low, just another face in the crowd, in other words.  A famous author once claimed you never had to bother and ask certain kinds of people the time of day.  Instead, they were the sort of folks that you used to set your watch and warrant by.  That's another thing guys like Guy have in common.  

Every day it's the same routine.  Up at the first note of the alarm bell.  Then it's time to greet the day, wish a good morning to your pet goldfish, pick the same type of clothes (khaki slacks, light blue shirt), sit down to the same cup of coffee like he always does.  The route he takes to his job also never varies.  Same number of blocks, each store and office building is right where he left it all since yesterday, even the people he passes by on the street seem to be running like clockwork.  Even the folks who are acting out at random are predictable in their own way.  It's like everybody is set in their own patterns.  Still, it's not like there's much to complain about.  That's another thing the Guys of the world have in common, even if they might entertain the notion of getting more out of life on occasion, they never seem to be all that serious about it.  Life is fine, they seem to say, even if the notion of being a Sunglasses Person sounds kind of tempting.  Still, it's not like he has the temperament for a life with that much excitement in it.  It's like his friend, Buddy (who guards the same bank at which they both work) says.

"I love my life.  There's something comfortable about just staying in your own lane".  The sentiment is clear, maybe even understandable to a large degree.  Still, Guy can't help thinking, that's why they call them comfort zones, they're so damn comfortable.  Sometimes Guy wonders if the Sunglass People feel the same way.  Every time he sees one them, they're always doing the same thing.  You know, they're driving through town at illegal speeds, trying to outrun the cops (and always doing the same pretty good job at it, to be honest).  Or else you catch them every now and then flying through the air with a rocket launcher, taking out a few buildings along the way.  At other times, they can be seen grappling and parkouring their way from building to roof top in search of...You know what, Guy has never been real sure about just what it is any of them are after.  They buzz in and out of his life with the regularity of a train schedule, and yet they always seem to be headed toward something else, while everyone else keep standing still.  Not that Guy is that curious about it all.  It's just sometimes he wonders about.

Still, for the most part, they keep out of each other's way, and run in their respective circles.  The only major hassle Guy has from any of the Sunglasses is that every so often one of them will choose the bank he works at as nice place to either hold up, or turn into a hostage situation.  The results can often get messy, yet Guy and Buddy are used to it.  Every time it's the same thing, somebody in Sunglasses and pimped-out looking threads comes with a gun, Guy and Buddy (Rel Howery) drop to the floor, and use the time to shoot the shit while random pandemonium breaks out all around them.  In all fairness, there was no reason for any of this to vary by so much as an inch.  It's just that for the longest time now Guy has harbored this idea of the perfect woman in his mind.  Most of us know at least something of what he means, even if none of us are as good at articulating it as he is.  We also have just about the same amount of luck.  Doesn't stop us from trying, however.  The thing is, one day Guy spots her walking past on the street, during the middle of what should otherwise be a routine hold-up situation.

Have you ever had one of those moment in your life?  You'll be going along, doing the same thing like usual, and then it's like the perfect opportunity just walks right past, clear out of the blue.  I don't know how that happens, yet apparently it's possible.  It's as if the universe itself, or at least something was daring you to take the chance that was written specifically for you, and no one else.  It's the sort of occurrence that's perhaps about as rare as a blue moon, yet when they do happen, even the dullest nail in the board is smart enough to know a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when they see it.  It's the sort of deal where the rule of thumb seems to be one ticket per customer.  Either say your piece or get out.  That's what happened to Guy one fateful day.  He was just going through the motions when he happened to look out the glass doors of the bank, and there she was.  Just as if he'd been waiting for her to make her appointed entrance, like the most beautiful player on the stage.  I have said that such moments are once in a lifetime deals, and to his credit, Guy seemed to know this.  That's what explains his change in routine.  For once in his life, he didn't go around acting like a piece of mere clockwork.

Instead, he simply picked himself off the floor (much to Buddy's puzzled surprise, and protests), and starts to make his way toward the outside street.  If only the robber wearing the Sunglasses hadn't notice him, or else just let him go on his way, things might have been different.  Instead, the fella had to speak up and call him out just as he was reaching for the door.  Sunglasses ordered him to get down on the floor with the others, and yet when Guy turned back to look outside, he saw the girl (Jodie Comer), disappearing round the corner.  To his own surprise, Guy found himself (naturally enough, I suppose) edging after her.  The trouble was she was also decked out in those tell-tale shades.  Girls like her couldn't be bothered to give a nobody nerd like him the time of day.  Unless, he maybe had a pair of Ray Bans all his own.  If Sunglasses hadn't been in the bank, that whole day might have turned out differently.  Instead, Guy fond himself getting to his feet, and about to ask the dumbest question.

At first, the whole thing looked destined to be a minor item on the nine o'clock news.  Local teller gunned down in altercation, that sort of thing.  Everything about the situation telegraphed this was the direction the scenario was heading.  It wasn't until Guy screwed up his nerve and asked Sunglasses if he could borrow his shades that things somehow started going way off script.  For one thing, Sunglasses just appear surprised that one of the staff had the gall to address him right to his face.  He just seemed real put out, for some reason.  Now granted, a guy coming up and asking if he can borrow your head gear for a while, while having a fucking gun pointed at his head, is pretty strange in itself.  A guy like that, you have to figure, is not operating with a full deck of cards.  Oh well.  Hear ye, hear ye, these things happen.  So what?  The man with the gun is always in charge of a situation like this, and there's just one way it can go, right?  Well, that's what anyone with half a brain-stem would probably think.

The trouble is Sunglasses must have been one of those exceptions to the rule types.  I mean he's got Guy literally dead to rights, and what does he do?  He gets all confused for some reason.  He waves the gun in our hero's face, true, yet it's like he can't seem to be bothered to notice its even there.  Come to think of it, Sunglasses is acting kind of strange himself.  The minute Guy drew attention to himself, it's as if the robber started behaving like a little kid caught doing something bad in a room he previously thought was uninhabited.  It's as if he realized Guy was even just, sorta there, and it's freaking him out for some reason when it really shouldn't.  It's what's going down, either way, however.  Maybe that's all the advantage Guy had, yet it turns out to be all he needs.  Here's where the script gets flipped big time.  The thief is distracted by Guy's just being there (for some reason) and this proves the fatal opening.  There's a scuffle, blows are exchanged, and even though the robber appears to outweigh him by a goodish few pounds or two, it all ends with Sunglasses face up on the floor with a hole in his chest.  Guy, meanwhile, is still standing, untouched, and with the former owner's shades in one hand, and the gun in the other.  Then Guy decides to put the glasses on, and from there the floor drops out of reality.

Dusting Off Some Old Sci Fi Tropes.

It's not every day that a new film reminds you of an old master.  I hadn't just finished with a review for a short story by Philip K. Dick, when I decided to watch Free Guy.  What's interesting about it is the way a lot of the movie's plot neatly dovetails with many of the ideas and concepts that Dick would return to time and again in the course of the his career as a Sci-Fi writer.  Part of the reason it was so easy for PKD to revisit certain tropes in his work is because a lot of these themes have the quality of emotional baggage to them.  They were psychological obsessions that haunted Dick throughout his literary occupation.  A lot of his themes are best expressed in the form of open-ended questions.  What is reality?  How is it, and why?  More important, is it even real?  Can I trust everything I see an hear on a daily basis?  How do I know the next thing I see, hear, or even the next person I meet is real?  How do I know that my own life is real?  More important than everything else, is it all just in my head?

That's a very interesting series of question to ask.  It starts on a peculiar note, one that might almost have to be described as a radical, perhaps even pathological form of doubt.  It just goes to a whole next level of weird from there.  Getting bombarded with those questions is almost like being accosted by junkie off the street, someone who you can tell from just one glance is busy stuck in a pretty bad trip from the looks of things.  That is also the best description of the content of Philip Dick's work that I can conjure up on my own.  Nor is it perhaps a mistake to describe a lot of it as pathological.  John Clute once described Dick as "grappling with greater demons than most of us will ever imagine (163)".  It's probably one of those irksome, hyperbolic statements, the kind that manage to be annoying on their own, yet are still able to contain just enough of a smidgen of truth to be worth keeping around.  I see no need for blowing whatever obstacles Dick faced in his life out of proportion.  As someone who prefers to keep things on the sober side of life, it's enough to just try and get at the facts.  With that said, the truth is it would be a mistake not to realize that a great amount of Phil's work acts as a form of psycho-drama.

It was this sort of ongoing conversation or interrogation of the author with some of his own mental hangups, and what this meant about how well he was able to accommodate reality into his life.  It can sometimes grant an uncanny edge to his best work, such as A Scanner Darkly, which is based off of his history of substance abuse, and even goes so far as to contain a list of people he knew who were ultimately taken out by their own addictions.  It's in moments like these where the "edge" of Phil's work manages to get under your skin, and why some comparisons to Kafka are made with surprising ease.  It also explains the idea of describing his stories as explorations in pathology.  If this is the case, then another uncomfortable truth is that it was a pathology that Dick was well acquainted with from years of good use.  I'll bet even he was surprised at just how much mileage he was able to get out of a simple, personal malady.  It's like it really knew how to make him fuck up his own life, yet once he put it to artistic use, it was like harnessing a champion thoroughbred to a plow, and reaping a plentiful literary harvest.  I have no doubt that this is more or less PKD's major accomplishment.  Nor am I always at ease with it.  Stephen King once claimed art is a support system for life, and he should know.

He spent a good chunk of his career battling his own personal addictions.  He's been sober for two whole decades now, from what I can tell, and its taught him a few lessons that Dick was still trying to learn at the time of his death.  One of them is that life doesn't exist for the amusement of art.  It's the other way around, and living, King found, is far more important than inhabiting a delusional dream world.  The curious part is how that also appears to be the main sentiment that Dick himself agreed with on a fundamental level.  It's why I call his career an interrogation of pathology.  In the last resort, it was all about fighting his way through the various delusions he threw in his own path, and about trying to fight his way back to sanity and reality.  This then was the main point of the life of Philip K. Dick, and it is the ultimate goal of all his fiction.  That's a pretty heavy source stockpile to draw from, and to it's credit, Free Guy knows that small is beautiful in this case.  It takes liberally from the storehouse of Dick's imagination, yet it does so with a light touch and a greater sense of humanism, if I'm being honest.  When we first meet our protagonist, we're already clued-in there's something off about his world, yet we're not quite sure where the reality lies in these first few opening moments.

That comes into play as the story moves along.  All we know to begin with is that Guy lives in this hyper-accented form of reality.  The world around him looks like it could be anywhere from Chicago to Seattle.  That in itself isn't the off-note.  The eyebrow-raiser comes in the form of the daily life he has to put up with.  As we follow Guy through his normal, working-day routine, it almost looks like he's living in a low rent version of Superman's Metropolis.  All round him amped-up villains with dangerous hi-tech at their disposal can be seen running around the place.  What's interesting to note is the reactions of not just Guy, but the rest of the average citizens.  The Sunglasses People careen all over the landscape, causing bullets to fly and blowing shit up at random.  And everybody else is blase about it, Guy included.  Their all just like, "Oh, well, guess Carl just got killed in that explosion.  Is today TGIF at Starbucks"?  It's like a version of Metropolis without the Man from Krypton to save the day. 

It's the first big tell that we are watching a world in which something is off.  This is more or less confirmed right away the minute Guy is gunned down at his work place, only for him to sit bolt upright, alive and well in his own bedroom, and then the routine starts all over again.  It isn't until Guy stands up for himself, and manages to put the glasses on that all our suspicions are confirmed.  The reality we've been shown up to this point was never what it seemed, and Guy is a bit more and less than an average human being.  Now to be fair, this isn't rocket science.  Even those audiences who head into this film with zero information to go on will probably be able to tell something is up without the film ever having to hold their hands, or anything.  It isn't until you stop and do the unexpected math of this realization that it begins to sink in just how well the story has been told up to this point.  It may not be on the level of, say, War and Peace, and yet it isn't supposed to be.  All it's done is execute its opening moments with a level of skill and fast-paced wit that looks easier than it is to get down on the page.

In just a handful of three to four scenes, we've been given character, background, motivations, and a neat and familiar epistemological dilemma that's handled with enough skill by the director Shawn Levy that he allows us a forum we can sink our teeth into.  You know, now I think about it, I'm kinda struggling to recall the last time a modern movie was able to do that sort of thing.  I think the fact that this is the first one I've seen in a long while is a testament to just how much of a collective fallow period the industry seems to be stuck in.  Here is the first film that has been able to set the gears of the imagination turning after a long while.  I think a lot of that come from the way it manages to dust off those same familiar tropes from the Sci-Fi genre, and present them to us in a chronological order that actually makes a decent amount of narrative sense for once.  In doing so, Levy and Lieberman are going back to, and drawing from an old, familiar well, with a level of storytelling skill that is surprising.

I brought up the name of Philip K. Dick a moment ago, and did so for a very good reason.  The entire opening act of Free Guy reads like a neat summary catalogue of all the tropes that Dick ever set down on paper.  These include themes of paranoia, existential uncertainty, and question about the ultimate nature of the reality we see around us.  What makes this doubly impressive is that Levy is able to give his audience what amounts to a brief, yet entertaining Cliffnotes version of the thematic contents of a lot of the mid-20th Century Science Fiction that guys like PKD or Kurt Vonnegut were famous for back in the day.  Just like Lieberman's film, their works often concentrated on average, ordinary civilians discovering that they and their "real world" are either less or more than they seem.  It's a basic concept that Rod Serling would go on to take mainstream a little later on with shows like The Twilight Zone.

Levy has chosen to handle all this familiar material with a lighter hand than any of the writers just mentioned.  I bring this up not as any kind of strike against him.  It seems like the right choice for the story Lieberman has to tell.  Nor would such an approach have been considered out of place by either Dick, Vonnegut, or Serling.  Each of them were smart enough to know that at one time or another, it would do them good on occasion to let their metaphorical hair down, and just have some good old fashioned fun with the tropes of their chosen genres.  The results have an equal yet opposite ratio of hits and misses, yet when they score a home run, the results are often memorable.  

Conclusion: A Surprisingly Good Bit of Sci-Fi Fun. 

In Levy's case, choosing to make his Sci-Fi adventure a comedy has the added bonus of playing to his strengths as a director.  It's what allows him to take even the most ridiculous bits of business and keep the audience rolling along with the nonsense.  I think what helps make a lot of this work is because of the kind of world that Lieberman is able to find constructed around the main character.  It's true there is this hyper stylization going in the scenes involving Reynolds character.  Yet the writer makes a very wise choice in how this is all doled out.  He keeps the setting and framing around it on a life-size level, with the only off-kilter note being the ubiquitous presence of the Sunglasses Folk.  The good news is that he also doesn't waste any of these avatar characters.  They're established right at the start as this puzzle that the main character is going to wind up getting caught up in.  The minute this happens (in a scene that I just now realized sort of functions as the bank scene from They Live in reverse) is when things kick into high gear.  The next thing Reynolds knows, he's being chased by someone in a rabbit suit with a machine gun, and the buildings all around have begun to morph and expand for some reason.

I make it sound ridiculous as hell, and to be fair, that is at least part of the point of this scene.  The curious, and somewhat laudable thing is how Levy and Lieberman are able to keep things on the rails, and avoid the film getting swallowed up in the inherent absurdity of its premise.  Instead, they seem to know just how much to take seriously, and when to allow themselves to have fun with the concept.  This isn't to say there aren't slips ups, here and there.  Some moments during the film's big showdown come off as a bit too absurd for their own good, and I'm not sure how much I like the image of Reynolds swinging a Star Wars lightsaber around.  Now for the real odd part, this isn't a deal breaker for some reason.  That's got to be the rarest form of compliment I think I can make in a case like this.  I think that's the one sequence that shows me just how far off the rails things could have gone.  A less confident filmmaker would have perhaps leaned further into the comedic element, to the point where everything becomes a knowing wink and nod that tells the audience they've wasted their time.  It could all have devolved into the worst kind slacker comedy sophmorism, the kind you expect to find in the Scary Movie franchise.

Instead, Levy manages to keep his wits about him, and is smart to realize he deserves to treat the material for what it is, an actual story with a very usable plot.  As a result, those handful of minutes near the end never manage to ruin things for me, and they don't really last all that long.  Nor are they the paramount scenes of the ending.  That is thankfully another moment, one where Lieberman and Levy bring their minds back down to earth, and are able to find the right balance between comedy and pathos as things draw to a close.  The reason I think that works is because of the inherent sense of literacy that winds up going into the final product.  That's no small compliment on my part.  It's been a while since I've seen anything like this in a film, and so it's like I have no real choice except to applaud whenever its more or less done well.  A film doesn't need to have the sophistication of an Amadeus or Citizen Kane in order to do well.  It's just that the creative slump has taken such a toll on the entire industry, that it counts as something of a marvel every time a group of artists comes along and is able to shake both us and itself out of the current doldrums we're all having to endure, for whatever reason.

Bear in mind, however, I don't ask that every movie be on the same level as, say, War and Peace.  Far from it, in fact.  One of the ironies you tend to find out for yourself, if you stick with the movie-going experience for a while, is that sometimes you can reach a point where even sophistication itself becomes stifling, and then all you long for is nothing more than a good, old-fashioned bit of light-entertainment, something that's maybe not dumbed down by any means, so much as it has a different yet similar type of sophistication all its own, that allows you to cruise at an easier tempo and rhythm.  It's the reason we tend to balance our intake of Chariots of Fire with a necessary dose of Die Hard, and the like.  Free Guy seems to fall somewhere within the happy median between these two poles.  It's a fun Sci-Fi Action Comedy, and yet it's not a brainless stunt show, by any means.  It's got heart, and maybe even a few good ideas backing it up.  At lot of those ideas seem to be drawn, as stated above, from the work of SF authors from the past.  It manages to embody the themes of one writer in particular.

I've brought the work of Philip K. Dick up once before, and not without good reason.  He once claimed that all his fiction was concerned with just two questions: (1) What is real?; (2) What does it mean to be human.  If the viewer keeps these two puzzles in mind, then it soon becomes obvious that Free Guy tells a story with PKD's influence all over it.  It's an element that the movie's screenwriter might very well be aware of.  Matt Lieberman pointed out how he drew direct influence from films like The Truman Show, and then asked what would have happened if Jim Carrey's character had somehow found the cheat codes to his life?  That, in essence, is the plot of Lieberman's script in a single sentence.  What's interesting to note is that I have heard Sci-Fi fans claim that the original Truman plot itself was lifted from Phil Dick's Time Out of Joint.  It's a theory that sounds very tenable to me, as both revolve around lone protagonists who discover that the world around them is a simulacrum.  A carefully constructed fabrication meant to keep them in the dark about the true nature of reality.

Dick first brought this notion into the public spotlight way back in 1959.  He must have done something right with that novel, because its main premise has been sparking the imaginations of artists and audiences ever since.  The very concept appears to have enough durability in it to find a place for itself even in this post-20th century age.  Then again, considering all the turns things have taken, is it any wonder that a film asking us to question the reality around us has managed to catch on so well?  This may be the real key to the film's success.  It managed to come along at just the right moment to be in tune with the zeitgeist of the times.  Perhaps there's even a sense in which it is able to embody its age in capsule form.  When a film is able to do that, whether it varies in or out of fashion and back again, it's pretty sure to remain a perennial classic.  It's the fate of movies like Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Peter Weir's Truman Show.  With any luck the same could happen to Levy's film.

All this is for future speculation, of course.  Right now, the thing to note about Free Guy is that what it amounts to is the latest in a long exploration of a standard Science Fiction trope: the search for and discovery of the truth behind reality.  I'm not sure it's correct to say that this is a trope unique to Philip K. Dick.  If anything, it sounds very much to me like Plato's Allegory of the Cave going through a series of modern updates over time.  Even if that's the case, there's no denying that Dick is the artist most responsible for giving the trope its modern form of expression.  This is the storytelling that Lieberman and Levy stick to over the course of their film.  If the trope remains the same, what stands out the most about this iteration of it is the overall positive spin that Levy was able to find and give to the proceedings.  Lieberman points out that a lot of the credit here should be given to the film's star, Ryan Reynolds, as it was a lot of the input given by the actor which helped tweak the film into shape.

According to Lieberman, "I did a pass on the script with him, exchanging pages back and forth. He is a great writer. He is a smart producer. He was looking at things as a writer, as an actor, as the guy who has to go out and sell all these lines and these scenes. His biggest note was, in the original script Guy was a cynical character. He started in a cynical place. “Why do we put up with this?” And he was like, “Guy should be happy where he is.” It really gave the character a much bigger arc. A further place to go. He had a lot of great ideas (web)".  What this means in practice, is that between the three of them, Reynolds, Levy, and Lieberman we're successfully able to locate the right engine for the story.  It all clicked once they asked the simple question of what would happen if they decided to cut the typical protagonist of this kind of story a break for once?  Why not let the good guy win, in other words?  As a result, Reynold's character almost has this sense of innovation about him.  He's one of the few examples I know where the "Cave Protagonist" is allowed to triumph over his adversities.  He is, as the filmmaker's said, allowed access to the "cheat codes" of life.  It's a choice that writer's like Dick rarely had the courage to go with.  To see it done for once with sincerity comes like a breath fresh air.

Perhaps its this sense that you can break out of your own little silo, and find a way to live a real life that is what helped the film resonate so well at the box office.  There's talk of a sequel already, or course, yet in a strange twist, I almost hope that doesn't happen.  The whole point of Free Guy is about what Henry David Thoreau referred to as "Living Authentically", and that's a goal that Reynold's character is able to achieve by the time the film closes.  It would be a shame to have a well made, and pleasantly self-contained Sci-Fi fable such as this fall victim to the dreaded studio reset button.  I am willing to offer up a constructive comprise on this idea, however.  As I was watching Levy's movie, I remember thinking wouldn't it be fun if this were happening to Sonic the Hedgehog?  Then it hit me that this idea could be an intriguing direction to take the video game mascot in.  Let him discover that he's always been a digital computer avatar, and then see what he makes of himself from there.  That' a creative way to carry on the idea, while still keeping the dramatic integrity of films like Free Guy safe and intact. 

On the whole, though, the most important question always remains the same.  Is the story all that entertaining?  Well, in case you haven't been paying attention all this time, my final verdict shouldn't come as all that much of a surprise.  The real shocker was just how much I came away being won over by this movie.  I'm trying to remember the last time I got that kind of experience out of a contemporary film.  It's what makes Free Guy something of an unintentional marvel.  It's a film that manages to be two things at once, while somehow managing not to alienate its respective audiences.  For those looking for a good time, the film plays out as a fast-paced, yet also warm-hearted action adventure comedy.  Levy handles every scene with a sure hand, and he keeps the pace moving in a way that still manages to leave room for lots of good, and sometimes just downright funny character development.  

If I had to choose, I think my favorite example of this is the scene with the brief, yet hysterical walk-on cameo by Channing Tatum, as another player who meets up with Guy by accident, and then can't stop geeking out about it.  It gets even funnier when you see the player controlling Tatum's avatar.  It brings us to another part of the film which could have been a distraction, and yet Levy is able to integrate it seamlessly into the conceit of the film.  This movie is chock full of cameo names from both TV, Streaming, and even the would of YouTube vlogging fame.  In addition to Joe Keery and Matthew Cardarople from Stranger Things, we also have the familiar faces of such online celebrities as Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, "DanTDM" Middleton, and Sean McLoughlin, better know to YouTubers as Jacksepticeye.  Their casting in this film is one of those balancing wire acts that filmmakers sometimes have to to juggle with, in order to keep all the necessary plates spinning.  The good news, as I've said, is that Levy proves himself up to the task.  Rather than having them be pointless character interactions, he makes the wise choice of having most of them act as the occasional Greek Chorus. 

They'll crop up now and again, either to provide a comedic running commentary on the story as its happening.  Or else they find themselves blindsided by a plot development that they didn't see coming.  It's in those latter moments that a lot of these internet personalities are given a chance to show their surprisingly effective sense of comedic timing.  That shouldn't come as all that much of a surprise, when you think about it.  Part of the whole, developed routine of vloggers like Destiny Claymore or Imane "Pokimane" Anys is of them having all sort of funny reaction videos to the games they play.  It's sort of their main draw, and this is something that Levy seems to be aware of, and is able to put to good use for the sake of the script, rather than the other way around.  Aside from this, and on a more somber note, this film gives us the final big screen appearance of the late, great Alex Trebek.  I'll have to admit I almost didn't recognize him, to the point where it was a surprise that I'd seen him in the movie.

Beyond all this, however, there is the real value of the film.  Free Guy is one of those rare examples of the species these days.  It's a Sci-Fi film with a legitimate premise, and one that it knows how to take seriously, even when going for a laugh.  It all comes down to two simple observations.  The first is the the ingredients of Levy's film, and Lieberman's script all go together in such a way as to clue the savvy viewer in to the fact that what we've got here is a film that acts as part of a long, and established tradition within the field of Science Fiction.  Like the best work of Philip K. Dick, it plays on the themes of questioning and re-contextualizing reality.  Unlike a lot of other artists who've tackled this sort of material before, Levy, Lieberman, and Reynolds have got to be one of, if not the first ever, to handle the subject with a lighter, more optimistic touch.  This makes for a film very much in the vein of not just The Truman Show, yet also similar works like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  I think it's this shared sense of light-hearted hope contained in all those films that helps make them perennial audience favorites.  And Free Guy is a worthy addition to that Tradition of Sci-Fi classics. 


  1. (1) Basically all I've heard about this movie is that it's a lot of fun, specifically in a throwback way to what the blockbusters of yore used to be like. I'm glad to hear it for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that even though I've rarely liked any of Ryan Reynolds's movies, he's an actor I always root for. So I'm please that this one seems to have been a bit of a home run.

    (2) I'm pleased to hear that the movie has enough ideas in it that it can withstand comparisons to PKD and "The Truman Show" and the like. My assumption when I saw the first trailer is that it would be of the type of quality one expects from the average Adam Sandler comedy. Seeing that Shawn Levy directed made me wonder, though; I had thought the same thing about his "Real Steel," which turned out to be a pretty solid flick. Sounds like he is, if you'll pardon the pun, leveling up even farther.

    (3) "A film doesn't need to have the sophistication of an Amadeus or Citizen Kane in order to do well. It's just that the creative slump has taken such a toll on the entire industry, that it counts as something of a marvel every time a group of artists comes along and is able to shake both us and itself out of the current doldrums we're all having to endure, for whatever reason." -- So, so true, all the way around.

    (4) "It's a film that manages to be two things at once, while somehow managing not to alienate its respective audiences." -- You know what they say about spoonfuls of sugar!

    1. (1) (2) I think that part of what makes it work as well as it does for me is the lack of expectation. I went in cold, and with little to no knowledge of its cast and crew. This is really just another repeat of a familiar pattern. The focus is kept on the story, and just about nothing else.

      Like, Shawn Levy "seems" familiar to me from somewhere, yet I could be mistaking him for one of the original cast of "Second City". As for Reynolds, wasn't he in "Birdman", or something. That's about as far as my knowledge of technicalities goes. As it stands, the finished product is leagues ahead of anything Sandler has done. And it can take a shelf space along with its other peers in this type of story.

      (3) Word.

      (4) Just try to avoid cavities.