At the end of Tag, just before the closing credits roll, there’s a bit of footage of the movie’s real-life inspirations, 10 lifelong friends from Spokane who’ve been playing tag together, one month a year, for decades. That minute or two of clips has more genuine humor and heartfelt emotion than the entire movie leading up to it, no matter how hard director Jeff Tomsic and screenwriters Mark Steilen and Rob McKittrick try to capture the spirit of camaraderie among their subjects.
They do occasionally hit the mark, more so in the genial goofing around than in the contrived attempts at heartwarming bonding. The 10 real guys have been fictionalized into five composite characters, led by earnest Hoagie (Ed Helms), who’s the most enthusiastic about keeping the tag game going and getting the gang together.
Although they live in different cities now, they converge in Spokane (though the film was mostly shot in Atlanta) toward the end of May, their designated tag month, with the goal of tagging the steely, unflappable Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who’s never been tagged in the entire history of the game.
Jerry’s vulnerable because he’s about to get married, and his high-strung fiancée Susan (Leslie Bibb) is determined not to let tag interfere with their wedding. Befitting his status as a mythical tag titan, Jerry is almost the villain of the story, and Renner remains separated from the other four main stars (including Jon Hamm as corporate executive Bob, Jake Johnson as stoner Chilli and Hannibal Buress as laid-back voice of reason Sable) for much of the movie. That takes some of the impact out of the idea that this is a way for old friends to remain connected, and the half-hearted explorations of Jerry’s outcast status never amount to much.
The chemistry among the main stars is also inconsistent, and it doesn’t help that there’s a 12-year age gap between the oldest and youngest of these actors who are supposed to be playing childhood friends. Helms gets the most substantial character arc as Hoagie, although the third-act reveal of his true motivations for going unusually overboard with tag this particular year is a cheap bit of emotional manipulation.
Rashida Jones shows up for a mostly time-filling role as a woman whom both Bob and Chilli have been pursuing for years, and Annabelle Wallis spends almost all of her screen time literally just standing in the background and gawking as the movie’s version of the Wall Street Journal reporter who first brought the tag story to national prominence. At least Isla Fisher gets a more involved role as Hoagie’s wife Anna, who is as dedicated to the tag game as the guys are, often getting even more riled up than they do. Her hairpin turns from competitive intensity to supportive sweetness provide some of the movie’s biggest laughs.
Nearly all of the rest of the laughs come from Buress’ deadpan line readings, which all sound like he’s just encountering the script for the first time, and he can’t quite believe what’s been written for him. Buress is a great stand-up comic, but he doesn’t exactly qualify as a good actor, and the way that he just imports his laconic stage persona into every one of his roles brings a welcome note of absurdity to this otherwise entirely by-the-numbers mainstream comedy.
First-time feature director Tomsic stages some surprisingly stylish action scenes within the confines of the relatively grounded story, and the pacing rarely lags, even though there isn’t a whole lot of meat on the narrative. Thanks to its likeable stars, Tag is mildly pleasant but entirely forgettable. It’s no competition for the real story.