TUCSON, Ariz. — "Free Guy" imagines the point of view of a background video game character that suddenly generates self-awareness. It's a concept that could be played for cheap laughs or explored by a doctoral thesis.
The movie has it both ways and adds in loads of charm, romance, and action to boot. It's been too long since a comedy came along with as much to say, and managed to triumph on so many levels.
Director Shawn Levy, a veteran of dumb comedies such as "Night at the Museum" and "Cheaper by the Dozen," levels up his game considerably, telling a fascinating, insightful tale that delivers food for thought as well as laughs. The wickedly provocative script takes on some of the concepts from "Ready Player One" and "The Truman Show," delving into voyeuristic and morally detached ways in which pop culture has evolved.
Even with the exquisite script, the film wouldn't have nearly the punch it does without the presence of Ryan Reynolds, whose commanding presence and unmatchable delivery can wring extra levels of humor out of the blandest bits of dialogue.
He plays Blue Shirt Guy, a bot in the lowest-common-denominator online role-playing game "Free City," who snaps out of his cannon fodder daze to do whatever he wants.
Much of his drive comes in pursuit of Molotov Girl, a human known in the real world as Millie played by Jodie Comer of "Killing Eve" fame. The tenuous friendship and romance that develops between the A.I. has echoes of the bizarre, melancholy relationship between Joaquin Phoenix and the virtual assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson in "Her."
Millie and her former game developer partner, Keys (Joe Keery) provide the crux of the dramatic arc, as they seek to ferret out proof that the nefarious Antwan (Taika Waititi) has stolen the code of their dream project and accidentally left proof amid the monstrosity that is "Free City."
Whip-smart references to gaming culture and social media obsessives abound, but the film is funny and authentic enough to connect to those who can't catch all the allusions.
Reynolds, who plays his character with an oblivious innocence that's the polar opposite of his equally dazzling "Deadpool" smarm, reigns as both king and court jester of this wild digital world. "Free Guy" dares to strive for a higher level and largely succeeds.
Viewed Thursday at Harkins Arizona Pavilions.
RATING: 3.5 stars out of 4.