What makes Ryan Reynolds unique in Hollywood is that he gives off the air of not trying very hard. Let Tom Cruise battle Father Time or Oscar-hungry actors gain (or lose) 40 pounds to win a shelf full of awards: The 44-year-old star seems content to let his smirk do all the work. With Deadpool, an R-rated superhero movie that mocked the staid earnestness of superhero movies, Reynolds found the perfect vehicle for his nonchalant, smart-aleck appeal, making fun of Hollywood’s haughty stars by coming across as a regular guy. Granted, no regular guy I know has his incredible jawline or dreamy eyes, but that made the illusion even more impressive. After years of trying and failing to become an A-lister — showing up in dreck like Green Lantern — he found himself by embodying Wade Wilson’s nose-thumbing essence. A lot of actors can’t pull off snide irreverence, but Reynolds made it charming.
The success of the Deadpool movies opened the door for a career as a legitimate leading man, although the results haven’t been very encouraging thus far. The Hitman’s Bodyguard films and Pokémon Detective Pikachu derive their minimal pleasures from the fact that Reynolds is cluing us into the fact that they’re junky studio products. He doesn’t take them seriously, and he invites us not to, either. But the problem was that those movies were simply not good, so being reminded that we were sitting through garbage the whole time didn’t lessen our misery. It’s a fine line between being a likeable smart-ass and being a smug star coasting on shtick — Reynolds’ recent films made me wonder if he recognized the difference anymore.
On its surface, Free Guy ought to be a course correction of sorts. Featuring a marketable hook and a core of sincerity that’s rare for his films, this Truman Show-esque action-comedy tells the story of Guy, a genial nobody who lives in a big city named Free City. He’s the kind of normcore dude who wears the same outfit every day — blue buttoned-down shirt, nondescript tie, tan khakis — and is a teller at a bank. His whole life is as riveting as a dorky “Mondays, am I right?” observation: His best friend, the equally basic Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), is a security guard at the bank, and the entirety of their friendship seems based on the fact that they work together. Guy is blandly upbeat in that utterly anonymous way that we tend to tune out when we have our minds on other things. (He tells his customers not to have a good day — they should have a great day.) His job is to serve, and that’s just peachy with him — as long as he gets the same cup of generic coffee at the local shop each day, he’s okay.
Every man is the main character of his own story, but the joke of Free Guy is that, in fact, that’s not true of Guy. He’s a background figure — a non-player character — in a violent Grand Theft Auto-like video game called Free City. That explains why the bank is robbed every day and random acts of crime happen all over town. But Guy isn’t aware that he’s just a collection of ones and zeroes, a sliver of A.I. without a soul. He just thinks life is like this.
With shades of The Purple Rose of Cairo, where a matinee idol walked off the screen and into the world of a moviegoer with whom he was infatuated, Guy gets his first glimpse of a bigger world when he falls for Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a stylish assassin who seems out of his league. (As Buddy explains to him, she wears sunglasses — guys like them aren’t equipped to interact with cool people with sunglasses.) But he decides to get out of his lane and talk to her, not knowing that she’s actually an avatar being played by Millie (Jodie Comer again) in the real world. Millie finds the video-game character sweetly endearing in his naivete, but she’s confused: Isn’t he a NPC? He hasn’t been programmed to be controlled by a gamer, so what’s provoking him to act on his own? Could Guy actually be alive?
There’s something inherently funny about having Reynolds portray this background character. As good-looking as Reynolds is, there’s an every-bro anonymity to him that, early in his career, found him stuck playing slightly douchey guys who may or may not end up having a heart of gold. But with his bland wardrobe and enthusiastically pleasant demeanor — the same happy-go-lucky attitude Reynolds’ characters sometimes wield as a put-on — Guy might feel like the star’s latest attempt to satirize the slick glitziness of Hollywood A-listers like himself. The character is so stripped of personality — so lobotomized and lacking in edge — that Guy comes across as a mirror-image parody of Reynolds’ usually super-sarcastic self. If it was a little meaner, it might even be his biting impersonation of an actual normal person.
For a moment, I hoped Free Guy would really examine and deconstruct Reynolds’ onscreen persona — then the movie might have been interesting. But what most viewers will discover is that Free Guy isn’t very interesting in any regard. The film has ideas — the possibility of A.I. gaining consciousness, the drudgery of daily life, the need to escape into alternate realities and online personas, the prevalence of violence in our society (and our entertainment) — but director Shawn Levy doesn’t seem all that invested in exploring them. Instead, Free Guy just follows a predictable narrative arc involving Guy’s failure to understand his situation and Millie’s growing fondness for this guy, who’s not real. (Or is he?)
But the fault also lies with Reynolds, who seems to dig the story’s high-concept novelty yet can’t make the character particularly memorable. As Free Guy rolls along and Guy becomes more aware of what’s happening around him, he becomes a standard dramatic trope — the humble, noble regular guy who doesn’t realize he’s destined for greatness. Reynolds doesn’t have much trouble pulling off the action-hero side of Guy’s transformation, but he’s a lot less convincing evincing a tender soulfulness when Guy tries to convince Millie that he loves her — and, more importantly, that he’s as “real” as any man she might meet outside of Free City.
Reynolds is more than capable of revealing depth and pathos — his slept-on 2015 gambling drama Mississippi Grind is ample proof — but in the effects-heavy, impersonal Free Guy, his sincerity comes across as phony. It feels like Reynolds trying to demonstrate he’s a sensitive dude beneath his wise-guy veneer. It feels like a calculated move, which is the opposite of the not-give-a-shit breeziness that’s made him such a refreshingly unpretentious big-screen presence these last few years.
No one needs to worry about Reynolds’ career: He’s got several high-profile projects lined up, everything from sci-fi dramas to musicals. He’ll be fine for the near future. But it’s his ability to inject a little irony into Hollywood’s pomp and circumstance — questioning the industry’s self-importance from within through the power of a raised eyebrow or sardonic line reading — that helped him stand out from so many other handsome, hunky leading men. Blending in has never worked for Ryan Reynolds, so it’s intriguing that, in Free Guy, he’s playing someone who does, only to realize that he’s meant to be the hero after all. A better film would have played like a sly commentary on Reynolds’ own career trajectory. Instead, he becomes just one more blah movie star. He’s rarely seemed less real.