If “Oceans 8” (Gary Ross) was a highlight of Hollywood’s finest actresses having their shameless fun, then perhaps “Tag” is its male equivalent? It does have the breath of a male-centric comedy within its slapstick nature and raunchy humor, and it stars some of Hollywood’s most prominent men (well, Jeremy Renner and Jon Hamm). It’s loosely based off a true story: a group of ten grown men played the game of schoolyard tag for 30+ years, giving them all reasons to be in each others’ lives. In the film, the number of participants is whittled down to five, with Jeremy Renner’s character being the central target, as he’s never been tagged once. Ed Helms catches wind of Renner’s upcoming marriage, and enlists the help of Jon Hamm, Hannibal Buress, and Jake Johnson to track him down and finally lay their hands on him.
With a premise as ridiculous as this, I expected “Tag” to turn on the emotional faucet at some point and provide us with reasons and not just laughs of why these guys matter to each other. It’s the kind of movie that begs for it, while “Oceans 8” doesn’t warrant the same kind of impact as a heist movie. Sure enough, “Tag” has some secrets about these individual characters and their needed connections with each other, and to even come close to understanding strong male solidarity is a plus in my book.
Unfortunately, the movie is just too messy, exaggerated, and quick at some points to help that message sink in. The emotional reveal doesn’t come until the very end, and the overall effect leaves us questioning the real life group of friends, who are briefly given screentime in a rushed epilogue. It’s inconclusive and misses some of the sentimentality that is absolutely key to a movie like this.
And what makes that sentimentality such a key element? Helms’ character constantly reminds us how great it is for kids to just “play.” In other words, kids should be kids, and when you grow up, you still need to encourage the kid within you from time to time. The group is separated throughout the year, but the month of May brings them together for friendship and good old-fashioned rough-housing. The most distant friend is Renner, and this effort from Helms shows his deep desire to truly foster a relationship. A bit of it is corny (they all lament how Renner was always “running away” in as much a metaphorical sense as literal), but the dynamic is great and believable. Plus, the movie’s central game of tag is like a breath of fresh air in 2018; men need that competition to both enrich and reflect on the sense of masculinity in their lives – no matter how ridiculous it may get.
And boy does it get ridiculous. This isn’t “tag” like you know from the gradeschool playground. There are bear traps, swinging logs, broken windows, hurled tables, and more within this high-energy version of the classic game. Obviously, these scenarios are all played for laughs, but sometimes they’re so outlandish and brutal that it’s like “Deadpool” without the blood. The film’s main technical gimmick is to place us in Renner’s head as he plans an escape from the group, with his actions put in slow motion as he dodges tags. The result is comedy gold in some scenes, and just cliche in others. One lets us wander into others’ heads as well, and that perhaps is the movie’s best moment, especially when we hear Annabelle Wallis’ thoughts on why print journalism is dying (she is writing a story on the guys).
Among all of the hijinks and outrageous action, we do gain a believable sense of camaraderie between these guys. The leads all play a version of themselves, and when they interact, the result is quite enjoyable. Jake Johnson in particular masters the lazy stoner attitude (much like his role in Fox’s “New Girl”), and when placed next to someone like the suave but goofy Jon Hamm, we get genuinely funny results. Renner, Buress, and Helms all make honest comedy efforts as well, and this whole group of rowdy men is complimented wonderfully by Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, and Wallis. Fisher ignores the authoritative stance of Jones and Wallis and instead tries to join in the game multiple times, putting her passion for “crazy” on full display. Unfortunately, the amped-up antics often distract from this attractive and lovable chemistry.
Though many comedy films are more clever and less bombastic, “Tag” still does exactly what it needs to do without trying to be the flashiest out there.