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One of those stranger than fiction stories, Tag is based on a Wall Street Journal article about a group of friends, all grown men, who have been playing an uber-competitive game of tag for 30 years. The film’s end credits show amateur videos of the friends going to humorous lengths to tag each other, depicting such mild shenanigans as dressing up as pizza delivery guys to get close to their target or tagging a friend while he’s in the shower. It’s a silly and heartwarming human-interest story, to be sure, but the image of a bunch of overweight schlubs in Halloween costumes grabbing each other over two hours doesn’t necessarily make for exciting physical comedy. Which makes for a conundrum for Tag: The premise is too juicy to pass up, but it also has to be boosted into a manic, mainstream, R-rated comedy to keep the audience engaged. If it’s too over the top and cartoonish, though, the charm of the initial story could be lost.

A modicum of research will show that none of the real-life friends look or act remotely like the five tag-crazy buddies depicted in the film: They are Hoagie (Ed Helms), Ed Helms’s usual mild-mannered-but-secretly-ambitious doctor; Bob (Jon Hamm), the cocksure businessman; Chilli (Jake Johnson), the irreverent stoner; Kevin (Hannibal Buress), the eccentric with quirky one-liners; and Jerry (Jeremy Renner), the hyper-competitive meathead. They’ve been playing the same game of tag during the entire month of May every year since they’ve been kids. After Hoagie tells the rest of the gang that Jerry, who’s never been tagged, is retiring from the game after getting married, the rest of the affable men-children decide to put all of their efforts together to get him once and for all.

The screenplay by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen doesn’t dig deeper than these established, archetypal characteristics, which is fine for the most part, since the story’s focus is on how these men have been able to hold onto their childhood friendships as a group identity throughout this game. When the film asks the audience to suddenly care about any one of the characters through tear-jerking plot points, it all feels obvious, inserted to cover for lack of sufficient character development or due to a desperation to be taken seriously. A climactic reveal about one of the characters is especially egregious in that regard. If Tag decided to just wear the silliness of its premise on its sleeve, it could have been less tonally confused. There are also some sub-plots that don’t really go anywhere. Rashida Jones in particular is completely wasted as a long lost romantic interest for both Bob and Chilli. This sub-plot sets up a side competition between the two, with promise that it will leak into the tag game. Yet it’s just left hanging until it’s rushed to a quick and underdeveloped closure.

Whenever the game’s afoot, that’s when Tag truly shines. Director Jeff Tomsic approaches the many set pieces with the giddily over-the-top, downright operatic aesthetic of a modern action flick. In that sense, they remind of some episodes of Spaced or Community, wherein otherwise innocent games between friends comically elevate to high stakes dramatics. Take the paintball episode from Spaced, switch it with tag, and you more or less get this movie.

Tomsic frequently uses the drastic camera speed change practically trademarked by Guy Ritchie and Zach Snyder. This style, used with ludicrous self-seriousness by Ritchie and Snyder, creates the a sense of visual irony for what’s essentially a bunch of dudes participating in a playground game in the suburbs. Still, Tag is a bit of a mess, the well-paced runtime not allowing gag-based physical comedy and dramedy to exist equally on the same plain, just barely fun enough to keep an otherwise one-joke premise elevated.

Director: Jeff Tomsic
Writers: Rob McKittrick, Mark Steilen
Starring: Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, Jeremy Renner, Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, Annabelle Wallis, Leslie Bibb
Release Date: June 15, 2018

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