You have to hand it to a studio that thought to snatch up the rights to a Wall Street Journal article based on friends who play tag and turn it into a movie. To its credit, Tag does have a relatively open-ended sense of plotting fit for a group of talented comedic actors to bounce a lot of jokes off one another. It’s just a shame the film had so little to offer as far as ambition. With serviceable direction and the most edge coming in the form of an extended riff on something fairly troubling for any couple, Tag feels like an idea that set a couple of screenwriters loose with fun ideas, only to not have what it takes to reel in their story and the actors for something more impressive.
A real-life group of friends has been playing a month-long game of tag for 23 years, so that’s exactly the setup for this film. Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson and Hannibal Buress star as friends who have been playing tag for 30 years. While they have fun with each other, their true prize is tagging their other friend, Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who has never been tagged thanks to his spider-sense-like skills of detection and talent for escape. With Jerry getting married and choosing to retire after this latest month, the plan is for the friends to end his perfect run at never being it.
This is a ludicrous concept, but there should be fun to have in it. The cast is stacked with solid actors as the friends, and also adds on Isla Fisher, Annabelle Wallis, Rashida Jones, and Leslie Bibb, for good measure. Sure, this is the kind of film that finds a convenient (and iffy) excuse for women not to play the game, but at least Fisher gets to be in on the fun in her own way (she’s very competitive and supports her husband, played by Helms). So, even with all this talent on display, why does Tag feel more like a slow-paced game of hide and seek?
Direction and writing is the key culprit. Jeff Tomsic has proven to be a talent when it comes to television comedy, but this studio gig finds him coming up short. Tag sets its sights on being an action-comedy thanks to the chases and roughhousing when it comes to seeing these friends competitively play against each other, but the gag of tag-based action never evolves to anything cleverer, following the initial understanding of how the element of surprise plays a role.
Sure, there are some good, laughable moments when it comes to the sort of levels Renner goes to escape certain scenarios, but in a year where Game Night proves that studio comedies can still add a sense of style to them when the effort is there, Tag feels like a step backward. With frequent trips to bland locations, even with the attempts to use slow motion as a tool for comedic tension, it often feels like there was more investment in the idea that this whole thing could work, as opposed to taking into account just how good the results would be.
Writing-wise, far too little is done with everyone involved. The characters are hardly defined, and while the premise naturally allows for a suspension of disbelief, everything started to feel way too much like a sitcom, despite the attempts to create some cinematic cleverness in the already-mentioned lackluster action department. It leaves the film with an off-balance feel, which becomes especially irritating when Tag attempts to add both a romantic triangle and an emotional element for the sake of life lessons these grown men are supposed to learn (never mind the actual problems some of them clearly have, which are mainly tossed off as punchlines to a scene).
From just a goofing off perspective, the film has its share of moments. Helms is good for some physical comedy, Johnson is great when it comes to creating chemistry with others, Hamm has a funny bone that is always fun to see flexed, and Buress is a joke machine. I can’t say each of these actors has not been better elsewhere, but now and then they land some good laughs. I just wish there wasn’t a weird level of downtime in between some of the more significant moments.
Tag has the ingredients for a better movie. The stars are there, and the underlying concept could have made for a wilder film (over-the-top parkour would be very welcome). As it stands, you have a movie with some good gags and smile-inducing moments, but they all come from a fairly forgettable comedic experience. As many are now aware, Renner ended up injuring both of his arms during the making of the movie. Watching Tag wasn’t a painful experience like that, but it would have been better to see a film that earned that level of commitment.