Everyone who read the 2013 Wall Street Journal story about a group of men who have been playing a game of tag for 23 years had the same idea: This would make a great movie!
Not necessarily. Tag is here, and its writers obviously noticed that the original story was far too thin to make a movie. To pep things up, they frantically (or maybe desperately) threw in about 50 instances of crashing slapstick, gross-out humor, gay-panic jokes, innumerable scenes of boozing and weed smoking, and even an extended gag involving a possible miscarriage. The effect is intended to be somewhere between The Hangover and Jackass. If your idea of comedy is watching a guy drop another guy’s trousers and punch him repeatedly in the butt, here’s your movie.
The most striking element of the Journal story was the incongruousness of middle-aged normies taking time out from their lives to play a silly children’s game — but that spirit isn’t at all unusual on screen. Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Adam Sandler, and many other comics have virtually built their careers by acting like little boys. There has to be more to your movie than that. In this case, there isn’t. Both Ferrell and Black were at one point attached, but they wisely dropped out, possibly because they realized that even they couldn’t make this tiresome, witless script work.
Instead, Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Hannibal Buress, and Jake Johnson are the group of friends who have been playing sneak-attack tag for one month each year since they were nine years old. One pal, a veterinarian named Hoagie (Helms), poses as a custodian to gain access to the office building where another, Callahan (Hamm), works as a CEO. A Wall Street Journal reporter (Annabelle Wallis) drops the story she is doing on the exec and comes along with the boys to do a story on their tag game instead, but the writers Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen give her nothing to do for 90 minutes except toss in occasional comments such as, “I am amazed you are able to stay so optimistic.” Why have her in the movie at all? (The actual Journal reporter who wrote the story is a man, Russell Adams. He isn’t as pretty as Wallis.)
If your idea of comedy is watching a guy drop another guy’s trousers and punch him repeatedly in the butt, here’s your movie.
Slightly too aware that they don’t know how to write female characters, the writers make Hoagie’s wife, played by Isla Fisher, into a male comic’s fantasy of what women should act like. Mostly this consists of her shouting out “F*** you!” and the like. “I love this game. It brings out the best of us,” Hoagie says. No, fellas, it actually does not. The miscarriage scene is only one of many examples. How about when Fisher’s character gets knocked down so roughly she gets a bloody nose? How about breaking a church’s stained-glass window? How about kidnapping and hogtying a gym employee? These guys commit several felonies against innocent people in the course of playing their supposedly harmless game. Where’s the fun in that?
Fisher is completely wrong for her role, Hamm isn’t a natural comic, and Johnson is unable to do anything with his trite, woefully underwritten stoner character. But worse than any of these is Jeremy Renner as Jerry, the one guy in the group who has never been tagged in the entire history of the game. Renner shows no comic chops whatsoever in playing a sort of tag ninja who is able to avoid the others’ grasp with amazing physical feats. His absurdly complicated, Bourne Legacy–style stunts undercut the notion that these are all just ordinary Joes having a blast. His approaching marriage simply gives the writers a chance to throw in another barely imagined female character, the bride-to-be (Leslie Bibb, who played Ricky Bobby’s wife in Talladega Nights). Meanwhile, Rashida Jones pops in to play a former schoolmate of the boys who dated two of them. Just about all we know about her is that she’s a widow. This is meant to be hilarious.
It’s a classic desperation move of failing comics to finally take a turn for the lachrymose — think Krusty the Clown, or Jerry Lewis — and first-time director Jeff Tomsic wraps up the final minutes with a maudlin attempt to convince us that tag is really just an excuse for these guys to stay connected with one another. Except it isn’t. Just the opposite; even at a wedding or a funeral, all they talk about is the game, and outside the one month a year when the game is in effect, they hardly bother to stay in touch. Maybe these bros have figured out over the course of 30 years what the audience learns in 100 minutes: When they get together, the results tend to be as funny as a miscarriage.