'Tag': Film Review

Not quite 'it.'

Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm and Hannibal Buress lead the ensemble in this comedy about a group of childhood friends caught up in a decades-long game of tag.

The amount of pleasure you derive from the new comedy Tag may depend on how appealing you find its bizarre real-life subject: a group of friends in their 40s that have been engaged in the same all-consuming game of tag since childhood. If the prospect of grown men chasing each other around the country, scheming and strategizing, hooting and hollering and bro-ing it up brings a smile to your face, this one's for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve always found the eponymous schoolyard pastime to be dull or exhausting or even, on occasion, a source of existential terror — Why me? How long will this last? — you'll probably want to pass.

There are worse ways to kill a couple of hours than watching gifted goofballs like Ed Helms and Hannibal Buress mix it up with the suave likes of Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner, both working their comic chops. And after the sloppy one-two stumble of I Feel Pretty and Life of the Party, Tag comes off as a model of proficiency and hustle — peppy and punchy enough, with some satisfying bursts of slapstick. But it also suffers from the gimmickiness and genericism that are the dual scourges of the contemporary studio comedy, which is in such a sorry state that a confidently executed triviality like Game Night is greeted as the second coming of classic screwball.

Like that film, Tag is neither bad nor good, but rather, despite its out-there story, almost numbingly ordinary: an easy, breezy action-com that’s sometimes amusing but rarely funny, competent rather than inspired.

A big-screen debut by Jeff Tomsic (whose TV credits include the great Broad City), the movie is based on a 2013 Wall Street Journal article that screenwriters Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen have adapted into a rowdy tale of man love and one-upmanship. Every May for the past 30 years, the band of buds at the story’s center has thrown itself into a no-holds-barred, monthlong game of tag. They ambush each other at home and work, while their wives are in labor, during funerals; no setting or circumstance is off-limits. Whoever is tagged just before the clock strikes midnight on May 31 has to endure the indignity of being “it” for the next 11 months.

Earnest veterinarian Hoagie (Helms) is the keenest participant. He’s backed by his wife, Anna (Isla Fisher), who, because of a no-girls-allowed rule implemented long ago, can’t technically play but is the most aggressive tactician — a sort of expletive-spewing, overcaffeinated Lady Macbeth. The other members of the close-knit crew are dashing insurance exec Callahan (Hamm); recently divorced stoner Chilli (Jake Johnson); and spacy, neurotic Sable (Buress). But by far the best player is ferociously competitive, never-been-tagged fitness guru Jerry (Renner, all slyness and swagger), who, we learn early on, has chosen not to invite the boys to his wedding; it’s scheduled for May 31, and his fiancee, Susan (Leslie Bibb), doesn’t want it overrun by a bunch of dudes playing grab-ass.

Hurt by the snub but galvanized into bringing his A-game, Hoagie recruits Callahan, Chilli and Sable for the ultimate power move: They’ll corner an unsuspecting Jerry on his big day back in their hometown of Spokane, Washington, and finally tag him. Trailing the group is a WSJ reporter played by Annabelle Wallis (who, based on her appearance here, should be on the shortlist to play Ivanka Trump in HBO’s in-development Fire and Fury series); she’s assigned to profile Callahan, but decides this unusual decades-long tradition among friends is the better story.

The guys go all out in their effort to tag Jerry, with Hoagie at one point dressing in full old-lady drag and tottering after his target at a mall. But every time they get close, Jerry unleashes a flurry of ninja moves that prevent anyone from laying a hand on him. In their cleverest touch, Tomsic and DP Larry Blanford style these sequences like something out of the movies the guys presumably geek out over — slowing the action down, speeding it up and sprinkling it with bits of absurdist physical humor (Renner pummeling Helms’ buttocks is, um, something to behold).  

Those scenes lend Tag a momentum that it has trouble maintaining. Part of the problem, as is often the case with mainstream comedies, lies in the dialogue, which is whiplash-fast without being particularly smart. You sense the actors working hard to lift their lines into a wittier register, and, happily, they sometimes succeed. It’s fun, for example, to see Hamm playing someone who’s not the coolest guy in the room; there’s disgruntlement in his every sputtered quip and raised eyebrow.

Unsurprisingly, the ladies don’t have much to do, with Fisher getting the most screen time but few notes to play other than foul-mouthed belligerence. (Bibb’s big moment, meanwhile, is a woefully ill-advised gag revolving around a faked miscarriage.) The top-tier supporting/cameo cast includes Rashida Jones as the object of Callahan and Chilli’s rivalrous affections; Nora Dunn as Hoagie’s loopy mother; Carrie Brownstein as Sable’s therapist; and, best in show, Thomas Middleditch as a gay-panic-gripped gym clerk.

In its final few scenes, Tag makes a bid for poignancy that feels forced given the broadness of these characters and the fundamental weirdness of their obsession. Sure, tag allows the guys to stay in each other’s lives, as Hoagie explains. But it's also a never-ending hazing routine, a way for them to live out childlike macho fantasies of dominance and destruction. In men-misbehaving romps like The HangoverThe World’s EndThis Is the End and others, chaos befalls the protagonists (with a little help from drugs, alcohol and the apocalypse); here, the protagonists pursue and perpetuate the chaos. Tag is a so-so comedy, but on second thought, it might have made a really good, twisted psychological thriller.

Production companies: Broken Road Productions, New Line Cinema
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Jeff Tomsic
Screenplay: Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen, based on the
Wall Street Journal article by Russell Adams
Cast: Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, Isla Fisher, Annabelle Wallis, Leslie Bibb, Rashida Jones, Nora Dunn, Lil Rey Howery, Thomas Middleditch
Producers: Todd Garner, Mark Steilen
Executive producers: Richard Brener, Walter Hamada, Dave Neustadter, Hans Ritter
Director of photography: Larry Blanford
Production designer: David Sandefur
Editor: Josh Crockett
Music: Germaine Franco
Costume designer: Denise Wingate
Casting: Rich Delia

Rated R, 97 minutes