How Free Guy Explores Optimism Through Video Game Action-Comedy - VRGyani News and Media


Sunday, August 15, 2021

How Free Guy Explores Optimism Through Video Game Action-Comedy

It's so easy to fold one's arms and give up. And there's plenty to give up on, from the ravaging climate crisis to running out of Cheez-Its and still being hungry.

Those are the things I'm thinking about, anyway. And when I want to reckon constructively with these equally concerning issues, the media being produced around me, from comedies to action blockbusters, seems to tackle things with a level of cynicism adorned as a badge of honor. It isn't cool to dream of a better future, to ideate on solutions, to remove one's arms from a folded position into an activated one. It's cooler, more entertaining, more easily packaged for a mass audience to assume the worst in people, to accept as a given that we're all kinda fucked, to only spur into a version of helpful action when Viola Davis is threatening to explode your head.

Thankfully, Free Guy isn't interested in being cool.

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Granted, Free Guy is not the only contemporary comedy interested in joy and optimism as a radical tool of perserverence — oddly, many of the biggest examples of this new mini-movement are Apple TV+ shows, from Ted Lasso to Central Park. But Free Guy is the biggest, brightest, and boldest work of this burgeoning, attitude-driven subgenre. Yes, it's a $100 million blockbuster splashed with visual effects, fleet sequences of combat, and Ryan Reynolds delivering Deadpool-esque wisecracks. But director Shawn Levy doesn't lace these familiarly pleasureable components (not tied to any comforting IP, it should be noted) with a Deadpool-esque sense of tonal irreverence. Instead, Free Guy encourages us to dig deeper, to love louder, to be better.

The inciting incident of this journey into constructive growth and progressivism comes from Reynolds' Guy, a non-player character in an open-world video game, realizing that he can move past the regimented truths society seems to have locked him into just by putting on the sunglasses worn by player characters. The player characters of this game, Free City, don these sunglasses as a kind of visual representation of tapping into their ids, a mask that paradoxically promises the mask is coming off. Players of Free City, in other words, use the open-world nature of the game to break bad, to cause violence and mayhem and controlled, uncontrollable terror. I can relate; I spent countless hours playing Grand Theft Auto III as a sandbox of devastation, a way to purge any latent, subconscious feelings of everyday rage into a virtual expansion of humanity's worst impulses. I could see a version of this film that argues, perhaps successfully, that such visceral, violent explosions of rage are somewhat helpful, especially for a stuck-in-the-mud nice guy like Guy.

But Free Guy is smarter, trickier, more interesting than that. It's not Falling Down, it's flying up. Guy dons these sunglasses and feels deep in his bones that he must buck the systems around him. He engages in relentless hand-to-hand combat, skids and drifts sports cars through shoot-outs, smashes into storefronts mid-robbery — all for the greater good. He, and we, are having tons of fun in these kinetic, action-packed displays of self-realization and empowerment, but it's all skewed toward moral advancement, in the belief that differences can be made. Guy stops horrible people from doing horrible things, even giving an underwritten "bodacious babe NPC character" (Camille Kostek) the room for realizing what she actually needs to become a better person. In a world where our last depiction of Superman desaturates him into a morally ambiguous, posturing sadboi, Guy's unabashed, inherent, earnest heroics among the default of hedonisms are like a cool tonic on a hot day.

Free Guy isn't as simply sweet as a bubble gum ice cream cone, however. When Millie, aka Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), instiages a double-whammy of realizations for Guy, his world, and his friends — the fact that they are non-real video game characters, and the fact that evil developer Antoine (Taika Waititi) will be wiping them all out in favor of a sequel — it's a raw and real existential reckoning followed by an existential crisis. And Free Guy does not neatly sand over the edges of these tribulations; in fact, the film's end-of-act-two crises of confidences, both within the video game and among the "real world" issues facing Millie, Antoine, and embattled programmer Keys (Joe Keery), hit the heart and guts even harder given their change in tone from the film's overall desire to do good. When Guy feels, you feel, too. And like he needed things to be better for his world, you need them to be better for him, too.

I've found in our real world that when pieces of existentially-rocking information are dumped onto us, our reaction is to splinter, to individualize, to form confrontational takes that seem eager for a fight against a kind of imagined, collective, zeitgeist-summarizing argument. This impulse is perhaps uniquely exacerbated by a pandemic-stricken world in which we were instructed to isolate for safety, and in which we observed a kind of collective stupidity regarding a refusal to wear masks or get vaccinated. It's just so easy to say, "I am better than them, and it is better to give them up."

Free Guy argues for doing something hard anyway, even when Guy is positioned as a kind of special individual among his society (even when he's thrown a particularly visceral argument of "beefy individualism versus sinewy collectivism" in the form of a beefy version of himself). So much of the film's back half involves the characters gathering around and talking, on working out problems head-on, on narrowing down the scope of what feels overwhelming until it turns into a collection of actionable steps leading to change. These problems are not hand-waved away; in one particularly gnarly, guttural joke, Millie admits that "the real world" has about as much gun violence as Free City. Instead, they are tackled by the power of the people. They are tackled by the promise, and the latent existance, of joy.

To quote another recent work that waffles between silliness and existentialism, life is a "cosmic gumbo" of good and bad sloshing around simultaneously. Has emphasizing the bad really helped skew the world toward good? Does it make you feel freer to do nothing but zoom in on the forces that make us less free? Have our arms frozen in a folded position, blocking off our heart from what we're all fighting for?

At one point in Free Guy, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), Guy's best friend, is confronted with the fact that he's not real. His response is not to wallow in this despairing information, to proclaim himself doomed in a future that literally does not yet exist. Instead, he stays in the present moment. And in this present moment, Buddy articulates that he is helping his best friend with a tough time, and that is real enough for him. It is this diagnosis and dissection of the good things in life, not the wallowing in the bad, that makes them make things better.

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