'Tag' Review: A Fun Summer Comedy With A Somewhat Confused Tone

Tag is built on a foundation that most will likely find familiar. A bunch of childhood friends, now in middle age, persist in playing a game of tag despite the growing distance — literal and metaphorical — between them. In other words, it's another tale of arrested development. But it's got a few distinct things going for it that set it apart from the rest of the crowd.

The first is that it's based on a true story. Though the idea is cute in theory — it's nice that a group of friends could keep a game up for this long — it's also a little demented, especially when one breaks down the schemes and injuries involved in keeping it up. Which brings me to the second thing that works for Tag: director Jeff Tomsic leans pretty hard (if not all the way) into that sense of insanity. The lengths that the characters go to in order to tag each other get crazier and crazier as the film progresses, and I can't say that I saw all the twists and turns coming.

At the game's center is Hoagie (Ed Helms), who we first meet taking a second job as a janitor at the company owned by corporate charmer Callahan (Jon Hamm) just to get a chance at tagging him. Then there's Sable (Hannibal Buress), whose sarcasm can't quite hide the sense of paranoia the game instills in him, and Chilli (Jake Johnson), an affable stoner still hung up on his childhood crush. Our "in" is a Wall Street Journal reporter played by Annabelle Wallis, who doesn't have much to do beyond being an audience surrogate and asking for explanations when certain aspects of the game prove a little more difficult to tease out through context. (Indeed, the movie seems to forget about her from time to time, bringing her back into the literal picture whenever there's some extra exposition needed.)

The game's holy grail is Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who has yet to be tagged in all the 30-odd years that the group has been playing. To emphasize just how good he is, every time he's pursued, he sends the entire movie into slo-mo, calmly weighing his options through voice over and then executing his getaways with the kind of flair that would make any superhero jealous. (To that end, there were points throughout the movie at which I wondered what Tag would have looked like if Renner had had a more prominent role in it. Tag is at its most fun when it takes its action set pieces and turns them into heightened flights of absurdity, which mostly happens when Jerry's in the picture.) Though the men all spend time trading the label of "it" around, Jerry is the endgame, and all the more so given that his impending nuptials signal his retirement from the game.

For the most part, Tag is a fun ride. It helps that everyone is cast in types that we already know they excel at (Hamm in particular is hilarious as, with many of the roles he's taken post-Mad Men, he plumbs the depths of the handsome narcissist archetype), particularly when the jokes start to take a slightly darker turn. The idea of maintaining childhood friendships is by nature a slightly thorny one, especially as people start to move away and communication grows less and less frequent. Almost all of the characters have some issues that have been plaguing them in adulthood that their friends know nothing about due to the fact that it's only the game of tag that brings them together for one month out of the calendar year, and it's the kind of sad truth that's hard to balance with the headlong-goofy tone that Tag strikes in its first two acts.

Then the jokes fall away altogether, and the balance tips. There's just too much to unpack, which is as much to do with the true story as it is with its adaptation. The ups and downs of maintaining friendships — as well as a sense of whimsy — while growing older is a deep creative well from which to drink, but an easy one to drown in, too. Tag doesn't fall into the latter category — it's too self-aware — but it doesn't quite manage to break the mold of "man-boy" comedy, either. Though the explanation as to why no women are allowed to play is clever (they came up with the rules to the game when they were 9), it's not enough to cover up the fact that the female characters are mostly stereotypes. But Tag is entertaining enough to recommend as a summer comedy (or as a thought experiment as to what a Hawkeye movie could look like), and, at the very least, will make you want to reach out to those friends you haven't seen since school days and ask what they're up to.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10