At the end of Tag, we’re treated to some video footage of the men who inspired its story – a group of 40-something friends who still play tag together, finding ever more elaborate ways to make each other “it”. It shouldn’t surprise you that not a single one of them looks like Jeremy Renner or Jon Hamm, but that’s just one of the ways in which this raucous comedy exaggerates its source material to cartoonish effect.
The film is based on a Wall Street Journal article called It Takes Caution, Planning To Avoid Being ‘It’ and this is worked into the narrative, albeit by replacing writer Russell Adams with fictional reporter Rebecca Crosby (Annabelle Wallis). She’s profiling arrogant CEO Bob Callahan (Hamm) when his friend Hoagie (Ed Helms) bursts into his office disguised as a cleaner and chases him around the room trying to tag him. Both men are part of a 30-year-old game that runs for one month of the year, every year since they and their friends were children.
Travelling across country with Crosby in tow, Hoagie and Bob reunite with their other friends Chilli (Jake Johnson) and Sable (Hannibal Buress) to discuss big plans for this year’s game. The fifth player in their gang, Jerry (Renner), has never once been tagged in three decades of playing, thanks to his athletic prowess and Sherlock Downey Jr-like instincts. As Jerry plans to retire undefeated, the gang travels home to crash his wedding in the hope of finally laying a hand on him before the month is up.
It’s impractical for us to keep asking Lord and Miller to keep making every Hollywood comedy, but if any film is asking for a Lord and Miller, it’s this one. For the most part, director Jeff Tomsic does a great job with it, garnering some enormous laughs by bringing together a mix of comedy stalwarts and less typically funny movie stars to mess about in the boundaries of a plot that’s basically The World’s End meets Dodgeball.
While Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen’s script lies fairly close to the median raunchy comedy screenplay, the film really comes to life with the physical comedy, which largely entails Jerry beating the shit out of all of his friends at once. Renner has never been funnier than he is here, as an alpha male who happens to be preternaturally talented at playing the world’s dumbest game. It may seem like the obvious joke to make, but he literally has more superpowers in this than he does in the Avengers movies, and his unflappable, part-Bugs Bunny, part-Sherlock swagger never stops being funny.
For the rest of the ensemble, they’re mostly in their wheelhouse. As Tina Fey discovered in 30 Rock, Hamm is always great when subverting his matinee idol good looks to play a total idiot and that follows here. Comedically speaking, the other standouts are Buress, who nails punchline after punchline without ever shifting out of deadpan, and Isla Fisher, who’s funnier here than she’s been allowed to be in some time, as the wife who is super into the game even though an ancient “no girls allowed” rule keeps her from joining in.
It never gets on base as reliably as something like Game Night, which is still the funniest comedy of the year so far by our reckoning and generally goes to show how good this kind of comedy can be, but it’s funny enough for the most part. Unfortunately, it’s marred by the dominant mean streak in this kind of blokey comedy.
The “no girls allowed” rule seems to apply to a lot of these blokey comedies as default, while simultaneously taking pains to clarify how not-gay all of these male friends are. Even when it’s hanging a lantern on how these friends are terrified of being touched by each other, it’s taken to really unpleasant extremes. A painfully unfunny sequence involving the usually great Thomas Middleditch marks a turn for the worse and from that point on, it runs afoul of that problem where a likeable cast shoulders the responsibility of elevating the material.
On top of that, no amount of flip comments about childish men from the female characters can ameliorate the fact that the film briefly turns into a bunch of male actors and filmmakers doing an extended gag about… well, that would be a spoiler. In these situations, there’s an understandable impulse for some to say that anything is fair game in comedy, but the important, often-forgotten qualifier is that it should also be funny. Here, not only does the sudden, enthusiastic indulgence of a taboo subject sit uncomfortably in an otherwise fun film about grown men playing a children’s game, but the best one-liner they come up with wouldn’t even pass muster on the scrungier parts of Reddit.
While Tag skews towards exploring friendship beyond more competitive escapades in a genuinely heartfelt way, the second half of the film is overpowered by commercialised bravado. It starts very strongly and it’s entertaining in fits and starts, but the real footage that ends the film is funnier than anything from the half-hour preceding it. It’s enjoyable but frustrating. There must be a much better version of this film that doesn’t stray so far into the territory of the Hangover sequels, but much like Renner’s character, this is Not It.
Tag is in UK cinemas now.