Tag is a shallow and callous comedy that suffers from a failure of nerve. It wants to be darkly comedic but lacks the comedic sharpness necessary for such observations. Then again it’s Tom and Jerry slapstick bravado contain the highlights of the film’s laughs. It’s all so frustrating because Tag is a movie where we can visibly see the outline of a better movie bubbling underneath its surface.
Based on the Wall Street Journal article It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It by Russell Adams; Tag tells the story of an epic game of, you guessed it, tag. Four men Hogan (Ed Helms), Jerry (Jeremy Renner), Bob (Jon Hamm), Randy (Jake Johnson) and Kevin (Hannibal Buress) have been playing the same game of tag for the last thirty years. The game is confined solely to the month of May.
The script by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen hints as deep observations about how as adults we have trouble maintaining long relationships. But Tag shuffles these ideas aside for cheap laughs or schmaltzy melodrama. The men justify their behavior as a way of keeping in touch. According to them, the game allows them to be constantly present in their lives.
Not constant enough, however, for them to be invited to Jerry’s wedding. Jerry it, seems, holds a perfect record of never being tagged. A May wedding with the one man who’s never been it seems like serendipity. The attempts to tag the run the gamut. They break into his house only to find him phoning from hoagie’s old bedroom on a video phone. At one point the men have a disastrous attempt to tag Jerry involving decoys and booby traps in the woods. These woods are by the golf course where Jerry’s rehearsal dinner was held. Needless to say, eventually the men regroup. The Journal reporter Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis) spots the flaw in the men’s plan. “How often to do you guys keep in touch with Jerry?”
We learn that outside of the month of May the men hardly talk to each other, much less Jerry. A moment of self-realization that is quickly shoved aside to make room for Bob and Randy to fight over Cheryl (Rashida Jones). Tag seems more enamored with its premise than with its characters. Moving quickly from one set piece to another Tag never stands still long enough to decide it’s own tone.
The director Jeff Tomsic seems unable to decide what he wants to achieve with all this. The dark turns Tag takes never quite feel fully thought out. The boys crash Jerry’s AA meeting in a last ditch effort to tag Jerry but wind up staging a scene out of a Jackie Chan movie. Except, his friends were utterly unaware of Jerry’s substance abuse issues and seem unfazed that their friend is even in the program or even concerned as to what led him there.
Worse is how Jerry and his fiance Susan (Leslie Bibb) fake a horrible tragedy to ensure Jerry stays untagged. McKittrick and Steilen lack the verve to carry through on the promise of what this charade means. After all, Jerry and Susan faked a traumatic event. Then convinced their friends that the wedding has been cancelled. For a game of tag, meant to ensure everyone stays in touch, this seems somewhat unhinged.
The script then has the audacity to have a bizarre third act reveal. The reveal knocks out any teeth Tag had left after the Jerry and Susan fake out. You could make the argument that since this based on a true story, that the writers are bound by the facts as they happened. But you’d be wrong. The reporter in the movie is a woman, while the actual reporter is a man. The actual gang of men involved in the game number ten or more. Tag is a fascinating human interest story bogged down by Tomsic and his writer’s desperate need to fabricate drama where there is none and ignore the drama where there so clearly is.
All the more tragic is how funny Tag ends up being at times despite these glaring and stumbling flaws. No surprise that in a movie with four white dudes as the stars the funniest ones are neither of the four white dudes. Hannibal Buress as the anxiety-ridden and existentially ponderous Kevin steals almost every scene he’s in. When the boys crash his therapy session to essentially, get the band back together, he questions the wisdom of crashing his session only to have to take him home so he can pack. Plus, he did pay for the full hour.
Hogan’s wife Anna (Ilsa Fisher) is the MVP of Tag. Fisher’s Anna is a gonzo eyed cheerleader who may take the game more seriously than anybody. When Rebecca asks why Anna isn’t allowed to play she responds with, “Because the boys made the rules up when they were 8. No girls allowed.” One of the things I did enjoy was the movie’s conceit that women were and could be just as competitive as the men. Even Susan is shown to be as ruthless and conniving as the other men.
But all of this is left to the edges of the script. Even the scene where the men and women kidnap one of Jerry’s employees and threaten to waterboard him for Jerry’s location falters because of it’s odd homophobic gay panic jokes. Although I did chuckle when one of the men apologized for attempting to waterboard the poor man. “Yeah, we shouldn’t have done that. It’s a war crime. It’s kind of out of line.”
The elephant in the room, is, of course, the rampant white privilege and male entitlement. These men are allowed to cause mass chaos for a game of tag with little to zero repercussions is never addressed. Granted, I believe this is because Tomsic and the writers honestly don’t see it. For them, it’s about male friendship and male bonding. Except it’s a surface level metaphor that lacks any heart.
The third act reveal is spoiler territory so I must warn you if you really care about spoilers for… Tag…well here it is.
At the AA meeting Susan, Jerry’s fiance, collapses. She’s having a miscarriage and the game is put on pause. We later find out that the miscarriage, indeed the pregnancy itself, is an elaborate ruse. It’s a daring reveal and I loved how of all the people it was Anna who didn’t buy it. Well, Randy also didn’t buy it—but he did so in a way that even Tag found him morally reprehensible. To the movie’s credit, it does call out its characters from time to time when they cross a line.
But Tag blows it when it’s revealed that Hogan has a liver tumor. He collapses at the wedding trying to tag Jerry. Had Tomsic better perfected the tone of and had the script been sharper and more precise in what it wanted to do, this could have been brilliantly dark, tense, scene. Instead, we are left confused. The scene is played as if it is dramatic and sad but we, like Jerry, are suspicious. Had Hogan’s tumor been a ruse I might have liked it more. At least then the movie would have had committed to something. Alas, Hogan’s tumor is used as a teaching moment for Jerry.
“You got so good a running away you forgot what the game was about.” Saccharine horse manure. But wait Tag isn’t done demolishing anything it had resembling goodwill. The men bond over the oft-repeated line, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Weirdly, Tag seems obtuse to the fact that only two of the five men have any kind of a mature or healthy relationship with a partner.
Juvenile, in the best and worst ways, Tag is an amiable film until the third act in which it hits full tilt irritating. Between the faux miscarriage, the liver tumor, and the game of tag being used as a metaphor for how we should stay young at heart, it’s enough to make you want to scream at the screen. Movies can be like little adventures. You start out one place and end up somewhere completely different.
I started out liking Tag. It has likable stars doing heedlessly immature things. The characters are paper thin but the talent is enough to carry them through a movie. But by the end, I found myself actively angry at the movie for it’s third act schmaltzy betrayal. That may seem harsh. But understand the parting shot of Tag is an exterior shot of a hospital hallway. We see CGI recreations of the actors as they race down the hallway in slow motion trying to outrun Hogan who limps along dragging his IV bag. That scene sums up my feeling perfectly about this abysmally shallow and idiotic movie.