“Free Guy,” starring Ryan Reynolds as a minor character in a video game who breaks out of his drone existence, is one of the fizziest movies you’ll ever see that has a bona fide brain. At first, it may remind you of a lot of other films — it’s like “The Truman Show” crossed with “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” sprinkled with “The Lego Movie” and “Groundhog Day.” But it turns into a rollicking, candified head trip. It’s like a Christopher Nolan film that actually wants to do nothing but entertain you.
What’s infectious about “Free Guy” is that it’s such a smart kinetic comedy about what’s real and what’s not. Reynolds’ character, named Guy (and known as Blue Shirt Guy), lives a life of total hypnotized unreality; he thinks grabbing his coffee in the morning and going to work in a bank, where he says things like “Don’t have a good day — have a great day!,” is what happiness is all about. But when he puts on techno sunglasses and starts to see what the heroes of video games see, he wakes right up. His coded synapses begin to fire independently. He comes alive with a will of his own. He touches the reality on the other side of the game (and the people who designed the game start to see the reality they created reflected in him).
Directed with breakthrough levels of finesse by Shawn Levy, “Free Guy” is a delirious digital fairy tale about perceiving the virtual in the real and vice versa. It’s a hallucination for our time. And given that it’s a movie about one character’s crusade to connect with the real, there’s something about it that seems almost poetic: “Free Guy,” by being released in theaters only (it’s the rare movie this summer that’s not competing with itself on a streaming service), exists in a pure “real” zone of buzz-driven, old-school great escapism. It’s one of the most original films of the summer, one you have to go to a theater to see, and what that all adds up to is the sensation that “Free Guy” has achieved a minor event mystique. It’s that classic thing: a movie! One that’s not going to come to you. And if you seek it out, as audiences have been doing, you may be surprised by the high it gives you. I saw it in order to catch up with it, but when it was over I felt it had taken me somewhere. Out of the house, and out of my expectations. It’s a movie! It doesn’t just pass the time — it shakes up your body chemistry.
“Free Guy” had a solid opening weekend, bringing in $28 million, but back in those quaint analog days before Netflix changed the paradigm, it was often said that the second weekend was the one that told the tale, and with “Free Guy” that’s truly the case. This weekend, the film took in $18.8 million, declining only 34%, and that doesn’t simply mean that it now has the chance to be a solid money-maker. It means that audiences are excited by it. They want to go out of the house and see it! What video game are we suddenly living in?
One where the old rules still apply. Despite the tangle of unprecedented factors at play in the box office this summer — the slow fall of the pandemic followed by the rise of the delta variant; the sudden presence of half a dozen major studio streaming services — I have read (not in Variety! But in publications I won’t name) a fair amount of box-office analysis that tries to read the success or failure of any given film back into the aesthetics of the movie. Why did “The Suicide Squad” underperform? Because it was too dark and violent and didn’t have Will Smith! (But if the movie had scored, we’d all be talking about why it was just dark and violent enough, and why it didn’t need Will Smith.)
Look, in ordinary times, it’s fair to draw links between aesthetics and the box office; I do it constantly. But these are not ordinary times. And when I look at what’s performing this summer, and what isn’t performing, one trend is so obvious that maybe it just needs to be said, over and over again, until the whole universe hears it: Opening movies simultaneously in theaters and on streaming services is bad business. Your head can hurt hearing studios parse the metrics of whether such-and-such a movie made this much in theaters, and that much on home viewing, and whether it all added up to more than the film would have made had it been released in theaters only. But that kind of numbers-crunching, while hardly irrelevant, misses the forest for the trees.
The forest is this: A movie, even when viewed purely from a business angle, is more than a product that results in a week-to-week balance sheet. A movie has a populist identity. And that identity is an intrinsic part of its reality as an engine of profit. When you open a movie both in theaters and at home, you’re putting a crimp in the engine. You’re saying: This movie isn’t worth as much. You’re actually giving people a reason not to see it.
If “The Suicide Squad” had been a theater-only exclusive, it would have made more money in theaters on its opening weekend than it did — and if it had (if it hadn’t been branded a “disappointment”), that would have been an impetus for people to go out and see it. Instead, the film was hobbled, the same way other movies this summer, from “Black Widow” to “In the Heights,” have been hobbled. The lesson of “Free Guy” turns out to be right there in its title. The Ryan Reynolds character doesn’t want to be shackled to a program; he wants to be free. And movies, if they’re an art form that’s going to thrive, need to be put out there, not in your living rooms, so that audiences can form a connection to them that means more rather than less. It only diminishes movies if they have to get with the program.