There’s a tremendous documentary to be made in the premise for “Tag,” the feature directorial debut of Jeff Tomsic. Inspired by a true story, the new comedy centers around a group of life-long friends who’ve played the same game of tag, one month in the year, for the past three decades. These grown men have resorted to drastic measures in order to tag their friends. They’ll fake identities, drive miles upon miles away to their friend’s destination, dress up in elaborate costumes — the whole gambit. It’s an extraordinary story, one that’s completely wild and addictively ludicrous and, in its own little way, strangely sweet too.
Through their nonsensical decades-long tradition, these adult men have kept a bond together, even if it’s a competitive one, and remained friends thanks to a childish game. If a doc followed the real story, told from their own strange, good-natured perspective, it’d have the potential to appeal to the same crowd who ate up similarly quirky affairs like “The King of Kong” and the massively underseen “Finder’s Keepers.” Instead, the Wall Street Journal article it is based upon, Russell Adams‘ 2013 piece “It Takes Planning, Caution To Avoid Being ‘It’,” has been turned it into a tepid, bland, stylized but ultimately unremarkable studio comedy; one with no grounds in reality beyond the true story that inspired it. There’s undoubtedly an amazing film in here. “Tag” certainly isn’t it.
“Tag” follows five friends, Hoagie (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Chili (Jake Johnson), Kevin (Hannibal Buress) and Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who have continued to play their playground game well into middle age. These loyal pals have committed wholeheartedly to their game of tag every May for the past 30 years, and each year gets even crazier than the last. But this time, it’s different. Why? Because they’re finally going to get Jerry. Through his sleuth-like reflexes, Jason Bourne-like speed and almost psychopathic-level of next-stage planning, Jerry has avoided getting tagged for the entirety of the prolonged game. That’s right; in the thirty years they’ve collectively played this game, Jerry has never been “it.” But Hoagie is going to change that this year. When he informs his friends that Jerry is planning to retire after this season, therein by keeping his perfect record forever, these adult men drop everything in their lives and plan their attack. Specifically, they’re planning to tag him during his wedding preparations, where he is planning to get hitched to Susan (a sadly underused Leslie Bibb), who only wants to celebrate the perfect wedding.
Joined by Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca Crosby (Annabelle Wallis) covering the bizarre fascination and story, and Hoagie’s wife, Anna (Isla Fisher), who is deeply, deeply invested in her husband’s schoolyard game — even though she can’t play the game herself, according to rules they crafted as children — the team work their way into the wedding (which they weren’t initially invited to) and figure out how they can tag their hyper-competitive friend outside of the wedding preparations.
Because — through an elaborate series of circumstances — they’ve agreed not to participate in any tag-like activities during the actual wedding and its accompanying ceremonies. Any other time, however, and it’s game on, and the tag players try to take advantage of that.
While “Tag” might be flourished with more visual flair than your average studio comedy, there’s something inherently flat about Jeff Tomsic’s first film. Nothing about it feels authentic or grounded. There’s no weight to the levity. While that’s fine in the right circumstances, it fails to make “Tag” hold any sort of reality. The world in this new comedy, written by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen, feels hollow and adrift, with varying levels of consequences. There’s hardly any sincerity or believability. “Tag” moves at its own rhythm and pace, which fluctuates in any given scene. The result is a flimsy, weightless movie with no honest sense of purpose beyond the obvious: that the game of tag is a metaphor for how these dysfunctional gentlemen try to stay connected or literally “in touch” with one another as they get older. It’s surface level and it feels disingenuous, even when the ensemble tries to make it work.
“Tag” should be bolstered by its strong, reliable team of players. There’s no denying that Helms, Hamm, Johnson, Buress, Renner, Fisher and Bibb have proven themselves exceptionally in the past, as actors and comedic performers alike. Yet, they’re all struggling to make anything value with “Tag.” Rashida Jones appears too, playing a thankless former fling for two of the boys (it should be noted that all the female characters in this film are basically treated as afterthoughts, and none of them are given developed arcs or clear resolutions).
The material written for them is entirely basic and rudimentary. The set-ups are predictable and obvious. Beyond the occasionally amusing slapstick gag, as well as a periodically enjoyable slow-motion narrated breakdown bit a la the fight scenes in “Sherlock Holmes,” “Tag” lacks anything concrete or anything worthwhile for these admittedly-game performers (in more ways than one, of course) to do throughout these high-energy, but almost entirely unfulfilling, 100 minutes. And when it comes time for the big emotional moment in the final 15 minutes, its last-minute twist/cheap ploy to give “Tag” emotional sincerity is transparently manipulative.
Studio comedies are rarely the high points of hilarity, but “Tag” comes in a solid year for the genre. Compared to “Game Night” and “Blockers,” for instance, “Tag” feels regressive and weirdly aggressive. By establishing little stakes and few moments of genuine connection between the main stars, it lacks the warm authenticity and the stranger-than-fiction reality of the real story, which will ultimately be weirder and more enticing than any narrative version of this story could ever be. Where were the Maysles when you needed them? [D+]