On paper, the high-concept comedy “Tag” shouldn’t work at all, but for the first hour, the movie is a gas. It centers on a group of childhood buddies who have been playing an ongoing game of tag every May for 30 years. The cast — Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson — is great. The humor is wicked raunchy and the pace is brisk. But director Jeff Tomsic, working from a script by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen, fumbles the ending with a hackneyed twist that clashes with the novelty of everything preceding it. Still, what’s here is worth the tagalong.
The bizarre story is based on real-life friends from Spokane featured in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, “It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It” by Russell Adams. That truth lends credibility to the central gimmick, even if Tomsic, making his feature directorial debut, takes a lot of liberties. This isn’t your father’s game of tag; it’s no-holds barred, commando-style tag where the players pop out of bushes, disguise themselves as old ladies, infiltrate workplaces, show up at funerals or during childbirth to yell, “Tag, you’re it.” Those scenes are a riot, and full of goofy, but intense, action. Renner, who attacks the part as if he’s Jason Bourne’s heir apparent (oh, wait, wasn’t he? … oh forget it) even broke both arms filming one of the more tricky action sequences.
When the movie opens, the “it” boys — stoner Chilli (Johnson), CEO Callahan (Hamm), veterinarian Hoagie (Helms), “fast and feral” Jerry (Renner, getting the chance to be funny and physical) and the deliciously deadpan Sable (Buress) — are in varying degrees of adulthood and scattered across the country. Over the years, they’ve used the tag reunions to remain youthful and close. “We grow old if we stop playing,” is the mantra repeated throughout. Coincidentally, that exact quote is also at the center of the upcoming basketball comedy “Uncle Drew,” another movie about brotherhood, friendship and family.
The original rules of the game, with amendments added over the years, are safely tucked away at the Sandpiper, their hometown bar. The first game was played in 1983, when the boys were 9 years old. The main rule, naturally, is “no girls allowed.” And so, 30 years later, the women here are mostly along for the ride. Annabelle Wallis plays the Wall Street Journal reporter; Rashida Jones plays an old flame present to create tension between Chilli and Callahan; Leslie Bibb is Jerry’s high-maintenance bride-to-be; and the always-incredible Isla Fisher is Anna, Hoagie’s “intense” wife. She desperately wants to play, but instead revels in the strategizing; the more evil, the better. Per usual, Fisher vies to steal the whole show.
This year’s round of tag coincides with the wedding of the only undefeated player, Jerry, who rumor has it plans to retire from the game. With Jerry distracted by his pending nuptials, the rest of the crew figure he’s a “sitting duck.” But not so fast; Jerry knows his pals are gunning for him. He’s ready. Shenanigans involving snares, booby traps and chloroform ensue.
It would seem hard to go wrong with such an inspired premise, right? But late in the movie, the too-thin story is stretched to the breaking point when the script turns maudlin. All along it’s been fun and games. That’s what happens, though, when you hang your luck on a one-trick pony. But hold on for a finale that compensates for the temporary eye-rolling. Then stick around for the credits to see clips of the real guys. The footage is even more hysterical than the movie.
Perhaps there’s a documentary to be made? Also, you’ll probably be jealous that you and your bros didn’t think of this first. Might the movie trigger a spike in epic games of grown-up tag; just like “Wedding Crashers” caused an uptick in uninvited guests showing up at nuptials? Personally, I think it will be the “It” game of the year.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Annabelle Wallis, Hannibal Buress Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, Leslie Bibb, Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner.
(R for language throughout, crude sexual content, drug use and brief nudity)