Review: 'Tag' is an unexpectedly endearing comedy

by Christian Williams | 7/6/18 2:05am

Let me start off by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed “Tag.” It is an endearing comedy, smartly written and more than capable of making viewers laugh out loud. If for nothing else, viewers should be excited about the star-studded cast, which included: Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Isla Fisher, Jake Johnson, Rashida Jones, Annabelle Wallis, Hannibal Buress and Leslie Bibb. The ensemble actually works very well together, with a chemistry reminiscent of Clooney’s “Ocean’s” Trilogy.

“Tag” is a testament that real life can be more absurd than fiction. Based on a Wall Street Journal article written by Russell Adams, “Tag” follows the true story of a group of male friends who have been playing the same game of tag for 30 years. Even though they are spread across the country, for one month every year these men go to extreme lengths to rid themselves of the burden of being “it” before open season is over. If they fail, they are shamed for the 11 months before the game begins again. Extensive travel and elaborate disguises are standard — one was even tagged at his own father’s funeral.

The story picks up as Hoagie Malloy (Ed Helms) gathers the gang back together with news that their friend Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner) is getting married and wants to retire from the game. Jerry is possibly the best tag player in the world — he has never been “it.” They only have three days and one last shot to ruin Jerry’s perfect record, and this time, they know exactly where he’ll be and when he’ll be there. Working together, they hope to finally take down the master.

The plot is incredibly simple, but well executed, which is rare for comedies. Written by Rob McKittrick and Mark Seilen, Tag is Jeff Tomsic’s feature-length directorial debut, and I am excited to see what he will direct next. While he could have given more time and weight to the dramatic elements of the plot, comedy is all about timing, and Tomsic allowed the comedy to breathe, which made even mundane moments funny. Also, unlike many modern comedy directors, Tomsic seems to understand visual comedy and how there are things one can’t pull off in anywhere else but film. Instead of actors standing around and improvising scenes, most of the humor is driven by the characters’ efforts to accomplish their objective, using the inherently active nature of the game and showcasing an inventive style for the action sequences.

The style could be more refined, and sometimes Tomsic tries a bit too hard, but I still found myself caring more about the success of these tag attempts than anything in the last few action films I’ve seen. Renner breaks down the all-out assaults like Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock in the Richie adaptations, and it is a fantastic appropriation because his mental comments are silly, and his actions are akin to that of a ninja or a “feral animal,” as Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm) puts it. If you want to be impressed, walk in with the knowledge that Renner broke both of his arms within the first few days of shooting and did not wait for them to heal before filming the rest. These scenes pull off an epic feel, which give the game gravity, and Jerry’s conniving effectively made him a supervillain.

The movie works because it is aware of its own absurdity and embraces it. All of the characters believe in and adhere to the rules of the world and its plausibility, so we do, too. Often, comedies fall apart because they feature characters acting unbelievably stupid under normal or contrived circumstances. This movie featured characters living up to their fullest potentials under a ridiculously stupid circumstance. People can get extreme under trivial circumstances, and this film still manages to capture that feeling honestly. The absurdity doesn’t make viewers want to roll their eyes because it’s not cheap. However, when the movie occasionally goes for crude humor, it feels a bit out of place. The characters could have also been explored to a greater depth, but each was distinct and fleshed out enough to be an effective member of the ensemble.

Ed Helms plays a typical Ed Helms character, but it’s nice to see Jon Hamm flexing his comedic chops again. Jake Johnson did an admirable job as the friend who lost his way, while the understated humor — especially from Hannibal Buress — creates a rich layering of comedy that keeps viewers smiling, if not chuckling. Jeremy Renner is also beautifully antagonistic, and Isla Fisher portrays the wife who is a little too into the game a little too well. The cast plays off of each other well, and it’s easy to believe that they could actually be the friends who have been in a game like this for years. They bring an earnestness to this story, which really accentuates its heart. In the end, this is a film about not wanting to grow up because growing up means saying goodbye to the people we love, and that is a reality to which everyone can relate. “Tag” is important because it is a true story, and it gives us hope that no matter how far away our friends go, we can always reach out and grab them.