100 min., rated R.
The ridiculous logline—grown men playing a serious game of tag—is certainly an amusing idea for a movie, and even more so because it’s inspired by a true story that got its own 2013 Wall Street Journal article, “It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being ‘It.’” A truish high-concept comedy, “Tag” earns points for novelty, but it’s barely a movie at all, just a premise stretched out to a piddling 100 minutes like a rough draft of a script. Without reasonably well-rounded characters and not a lot of narrative driving anything forward, there’s not much to it, not even enough laughs that stick to not make it insufferable. First-time feature director Jeff Tomsic and writers Rob McKittrick (2005’s “Waiting…”) and Mark Steilen are blessed with a likable cast, but “Tag” is underwritten and rarely ever as funny as it thinks it’s being.
“We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing” is the mantra for a group of middle-aged friends who have been playing the game of tag since 1983. Every May, veterinarian Hogan Malloy (Ed Helms), hotshot insurance exec Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), divorced slacker Randy “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson), and voice of reason Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress) take off the month to play tag. When Hogan takes a janitorial job at an insurance company, it’s merely a ploy to tag Callahan in a conference room as he’s being interviewed by Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis). Realizing there might be a human-interest piece there, Rebecca tags along with these buddies on a road trip. Hogan wants Callahan’s help to round up the troops—Chilli and Sable—with Hogan’s wife Anna (Isla Fisher) in tow and head back to their hometown of Spokane, Washington, to crash a wedding and once and for all tag their most obsessively competitive friend, successful fitness guru Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner), who’s tying the knot with Susan (Leslie Bibb). Not about to lose his thirty-year winning streak of never being tagged, Jerry didn’t invite his four buddies to the wedding, but can they get him this time?
A lightweight lark, like “Tag,” can work if it’s funny; if the laughs aren’t firing frequently, then more attention is called to the threadbare script. When Hogan, Callahan, and Chilli head to Denver to wrangle up Sable, they somehow end up in the closet of Sable’s therapist during his session. Um, did they teleport? Disinterested in developing any of its characters beyond single dimensions—they have names and a shared pastime—the film gives no reason to care or to take stake in Jerry getting tagged. Amid the pratfall-heavy hijinks, "Tag" tries pushing the boundaries of taste, but all it does is offer a demented waterboarding joke. And then, by the time one of the married couples fakes a miscarriage and then there’s actually a medical scare, it’s hard not to sneer at how ethically irresponsible, selfish, and tone-deaf these characters are being. To make matters worse, everything gets wrapped up in a hospital in an unearned, disingenuous, too-big-for-its-britches attempt at heartstring-pulling.
Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, and Jake Johnson evince a strong-enough camaraderie on screen, but these characters loosely depicting the real ten men whose story inspired the film come off as irritating, infantile jackasses who rarely feel like real, flesh-and-blood people. They claim that the game brings out the best in them, but it does the complete opposite, as they run through other people’s apartments and breaking someone’s window air conditioner early on without any consequence for their childish, inconsiderate behavior. It’s as if they never left recess. None of them really have lives beyond anything directly related to the “plot,” and their lack of depth and unique personality traits—well, Chilli likes to stoned a lot—make them interchangeable. Thank God, then, for Hannibal Buress (2018's "Blockers") as Sable, the most thoughtful of the five friends. Buress is the lone bright spot in this lackluster comedy, slaying every one of his sharp, unpredictable line deliveries and deadpan reactions. Not associated with comedy, Jeremy Renner is also sometimes fun to watch, playing the elusive Jerry like an agile, highly trained action hero not unlike his “Bourne Legacy” character Aaron Cross.
Then there are the female “characters.” Isla Fisher, adorably funny or hilariously unhinged when given well-suited material, has gusto and thankfully isn’t treated like a harpy as the aggressively competitive Anna, but she more often than not waits for the script to throw her a bone since tag is a “no girls allowed” game. It’s also a shame to find a fetching actress like Annabelle Wallis (2017's "The Mummy") stranded in a purely reactive role as reporter Rebecca that, aside from one sneaky line about the death of print journalism, gives her nothing funny or interesting to do, except stand around as if invisible and barely get a word in edgewise. That there’s never even a payoff to Rebecca finalizing her story after following around Callahan and his buddies for a month gives one the impression that a lot of material was left on the cutting-room floor. Leslie Bibb’s overcaffeinated cheerfulness is entertaining as teeth-gritting bride Susan, but one action makes her more reprehensible than the rest of the lot. Also, in a few scenes, the charmingly acerbic Rashida Jones is wasted as Chilli and Callahan’s junior high crush Cheryl Deakins, merely there to cause weightless tension between the two friends and observe how stupid these guys are.
A missed opportunity and a waste of time and talent, “Tag” is charmless and annoying. In his first time at bat, director Jeff Tomsic at least brings a little directorial flair to the material during some of the over-the-top, almost surreal slo-mo moments where Jerry mindfully strategizes his escape out of a tag situation like a ninja. Once concluding with the end credits' obligatory footage of the real guys tagging their other unsuspecting buddies, the film demonstrates a most glaring disconnect, turning the seemingly likable and decent real-life friends into cartoonish man-children. One spends the entirety of this mediocrity wishing they were watching 2004's "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" or this year's “Game Night,” far superior comedies about adults playing games. Aspiring to be a wild summertime crowd-pleaser to see, “Tag” isn’t “it.”
Grade: C -