In the first trailer for the new comedy Tag, the filmmakers made sure to let audiences know it was based on a true story. The movie itself, which opens in theaters across the country today, begins with a slightly altered line: “Inspired by a true story.” Either way, director Jeff Tomsic (The Detour) and writers Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen aren’t lying, as the film is actually based on a popular 2013 Wall Street Journal article about a group of friend who’d been playing the game for 23 years every February.
“Oh wow,” you’re probably thinking. “They actually made a movie about those guys?”
Yes and no. Tomsic, McKittrick, and Steilen made a film about a group of longtime friends who’ve been playing the same game of tag for decades, but that’s about where the comparisons stop. The game itself is the only relevant thing the filmmakers gleaned from Russell Adams’ original article, but that’s perfectly alright. Tag isn’t out to tell a true or heartfelt story. It’s simply here to make audiences laugh, and while some of the male-centric humor occasionally ventures into outrageous, unfunny territory, it mostly works.
Tag follows Hogan “Hoagie” Malloy (Ed Helms), Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), Randy “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson), and Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress) as they team up to finally catch Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner), the one friend in the group who’s never been tagged. The five friends have been playing the game every May for 30 years, and now that Jerry’s about to retire, Hoagie, Bob, Chilli, and Sable decide to try and best him once and for all.
To do this, they’ll crash Jerry’s wedding–which they apparently weren’t invited to because of the its May date and the game–and take him by surprise. The thing is, as Sable explains during the group’s attempt to catch their target off-guard in his own home, “Our friend is a psychopath.” (Buress’ character, who reigns as one of Tag’s funniest performers, also calls Renner’s antagonist a “maniac.”) They quickly discover their already-impossible-to-catch friend has upped his participation significantly. He bribes the townsfolk, employs some golf course groundskeepers for an elaborate trap, and enacts sadistic mind games throughout.
Seeing as how this is a male-dominated storyline, the filmmakers saw fit to introduce several prominent female characters to try and balance things out. Annabelle Wallis (The Mummy) plays Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca Crosby, whose interview with Bob at his company quickly transforms into a profile of the group’s juvenile-yet-hilarious game. Meanwhile, Isla Fisher (Wedding Crashers) plays Helms’ wife Anna Malloy, a fiercely competitive woman who frequently holds her own among the boys. (And whose name sounds a lot like “anomaly.”)
Leslie Bibb, Rashida Jones, and Nora Dunn round out the film’s integral supporting roles for women, but that about does it. (So if you were hoping for something along the lines of Ocean’s 8, you’re out of luck.) Even so, the inclusion of Wallis’ outsider Rebecca, whose documentation of the events that follow informs much of the plot, feels like Tag is trying to position her as the audience’s representative. In many ways, she is, but the film doesn’t begin or end with her, resulting in one of the comedy’s most glaring issues.
Namely, Tag is trying to be multiple movies at once. On the one hand, by beginning with Hoagie’s ridiculous attempt to tag Bob in his company’s own building during his initial interview with Rebecca, the film sets up its core story about these friends and their wildly ludicrous game. This particular strain dominates throughout much of Tag, right up until the very end, which this review obviously won’t spoil. Yet on the other hand, Rebecca’s decision to tag along with the group as they try to catch Jerry–and interviewing all the players and their wives, parents and friends along the way–Tag also presents a wildly different format that isn’t always compatible.
This movie is very much what most viewers probably think it is: a goofy and unserious comedy that ends on a warm note about friendship. Unfortunately, much of the goofiness undercuts the one serious message that, by design, audiences will undoubtedly know is coming before it hits them. And to make matters worse, the Rebecca storyline, despite its initial intentions to be something more, is more often used as fuller than not.