This image is from the official trailer for “Free Guy,” distributed by 20th Century Studios.

The post-movie glow exists. It’s been missing for quite some time, slowly fading out of my memory since before the pandemic, when I could truly soak in popcorn-covered theatre floors and the rolling credits on the big screen. Having not had this experience in over a year and a half, I didn’t expect “Free Guy” to put me in that state of excitement that the end of a movie brings. But the movie’s happy ending did it for me, and I just couldn’t help but smile as I walked out of the theater with my shoes sticking to the floor. 

“Free Guy” follows the life of Guy (Ryan Reynolds, “Deadpool”), a bank teller living in Free City who discovers he is actually a background character in a video game created by Millie (Jodie Comer, “Killing Eve”) and Keys (Joe Keery, “Stranger Things”). He follows his programmed routine with pleasure until he meets Molotov Girl, Millie’s avatar, in the game “Free City.” His love-at-first-sight moment forces him to step outside of his repetitive everyday routine and get his hands on what differentiates non-player characters (NPCs) from players: a pair of sunglasses.

When he puts them on, he sees what he couldn’t as an NPC — med kits, weapons, gamer lounges — and decides to level up so he can speak to Molotov Girl. Behind the avatar, Millie is searching for the evidence hidden in the game that she needs to prove that Antoine (Taika Waititi, “Thor: Ragnarok”), owner of the video game company that released “Free City,” stole her code without giving her credit. Antoine plans to shut the game down — and end Guy’s world forever — before allowing Millie to follow through with the lawsuit.

While the idea of living in a video game world has been played with before in movies like “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Free Guy” is different in that it doesn’t rely on animation to portray the characters or setting of the game. For instance, when Keys and his partner play the game, they choose how they want their avatar to dress. However, instead of showing their avatars through video game animation, we see the real actors in these costumes running around the game world as if they were truly in it. The creators definitely have fun using costume choices to portray video game culture, specifically in the scene where Keys dresses as a “Dirty Stripper Cop” and another where a nerdy 22-year-old gamer living with his mother enters the game as Channing Tatum. 

Looking beyond the humor and fun guest appearances, “Free Guy” is surprisingly moving for a film that takes place in a violent video game world. When Guy learns that leveling up involves stealing, robbing and killing, he becomes hesitant. However, he figures out that he can be the good guy, taking players’ guns and weapons away instead. Guy turns himself into a hero, becoming famous in the real world: glimpses of YouTube videos where players discuss “Blue Shirt Guy” and even a cameo from the late Alex Trebek when “Blue Shirt Guy” is mentioned as a “Jeopardy!” answer. References to the video game in the outside world display the extent to which new media can infiltrate our everyday lives. Plus, seeing Alex Trebek is definitely a bittersweet moment. 

“Free Guy” reminds us to push ourselves, to try new things and to step outside of our comfort zones. When Guy tries to explain what the sunglasses have done for him to his NPC friend, he says, “Life doesn’t have to be something that just happens to us.” The people on the other side of the screen needed to hear that.

While Keys helped Millie create the game in the past, he has lost his passion for what he does while working for Antoine. But Guy, even as an artificially intelligent video game character, is full of inspiration — and I’ll definitely be adding a few of his lines to my list of favorite movie quotes. 

To be completely honest, I’m not typically a cry-in-the-theater person, and I don’t always enjoy endings that are wrapped with a bow. Maybe it’s partly due to the fact that I haven’t seen a good movie in theaters for over a year, but I found myself wiping away tears as the credits rolled on the big screen. “Free Guy” had a cookie-cutter happy ending, but sometimes that just works.

In this case, every character seemed to become more alive — even the ones who technically never were — as they escape their mundane lives and take control of their actions. The barista, only programmed to make hot coffee with cream and sugar, began making oat milk matcha lattes with whipped cream and cinnamon. Definitely an upgrade. 

“Free Guy” is full of fun references, cameos and charming characters. Guy’s childlike innocence and oblivion to the real world make for a likable character that you just have to root for. If you’re looking for a lively theater-going experience with a surprisingly heartwarming message, “Free Guy” will take you there. 

Daily Arts Writer Laura Millar can be reached at lamillar@umich.edu.