Review: “Tag”

Film critic James Frazier reviews "Tag," starring Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, and Jon Hamm.“Tag” is a comedy with a lot on its mind. That is to say, the movie tries to cram in so many subplots and themes that it bursts at the seams, left with only affable performances and some slick direction to patch the holes.

Proudly touting a plot “based on a true story,” “Tag” follows the deliberately childish exploits of a group of forty-something male friends who’ve played the same game of tag during the month of May for decades. This is as silly as it sounds, as the group treats the game with playful glee and schizophrenic ferocity. These guys will jump through church windows, leap off fire escapes, break into private residences, and bash each other with fire extinguishers to avoid being tagged. Afterwards, they’ll cheerfully embrace and reminisce about the good old days, most of which involve playing tag.

The plot sees the group’s players seeking to tag Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who has managed to avoid being tagged even once. Seeing as the entire group treats the game with a level of fanaticism rarely seen in ISIS foot soldiers, this is some achievement, but Jerry’s something else, a tag ninja with cunning to match his physicality. His friends, including ringleader Hogan (Ed Helms), CEO Bob (Jon Hamm), stoner Chilli (Jake Johnson), and token black guy Kevin (Hannibal Buress) figure they have Jerry cornered on the eve of his wedding, and descend upon their hometown to ruin his perfect record.

The movie keeps busy. The jokes, not too dirty, not too tame, land with a pleasing success rate, and are bolstered by elaborate action sequences staged with the gusto of a Hong Kong martial arts extravaganza. One sequence, which finds Jerry stalking his friends through the woods a la “Predator,” is just too violently zany. Others, such as Hogan’s near-success at tagging Jerry through use of a preposterous disguise, evoke a spirit of “all in good fun” that makes them enjoyable.

The group’s version of tag is strictly a boys’ club, and the movie demonstrates little interest in the emotional lives of its (surprisingly numerous) female characters. There’s Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis), a journalist following the group whose sole purpose to the film is to insert a gorgeous, mute blonde into every scene. There’s Cheryl (Rashida Jones), a childhood crush of two of the group’s members, who walks in and out of scenes with a vacuous smile plastered on her face. There’s Hogan’s mother (Nora Dunn), who parachutes into one scene to aggressively hit on Chilli before retiring to her dining room for the rest of the movie. The only female characters with substance are Anna (Isla Fisher), Hogan’s wife, and Susan (Leslie Bibb), Jerry’s fiancée, and that’s because they really just want to be one of the guys, causing mayhem and destruction in pursuit of youthful camaraderie.

Beyond the gags, “Tag” recycles the kind of sentimentality popularized by this century’s manchild bromances, as the game is seen as more a way for these guys to stay close than as mere goofing off. This isn’t so much an interpretation as something the characters state in plain English, several times, throughout the movie, in case the especially dense audience members missed the point.

If the movie is somewhat of a mess, at least it’s a funny mess. The dialogue is decent enough, but Hamm, Helms, Renner, Johnson, and Buress have an easy chemistry, one that suggests long-lasting friendships instead of convenient casting. They elevate the proceedings, and in no type of film is that kind of elevation more important than a comedy. But the best of the cast is Isla Fisher, who brings a manic energy to her role that steals scene after scene. She’s the rare actress who could take a line such as, “There are so many great birds here. Too bad I don’t have my gun,” and make it both funny and believable.

And there’s even a small, bittersweet surprise waiting in the movie’s final minutes that would bomb as manipulative schmaltz if the movie hadn’t successfully sold us on these guys’ friendship. But it does, and “Tag” manages to end well, just before bursting from the pressure of its flaws.