I wouldn’t normally equate an entertainment product with politics — even I try to keep the two separate unless the product in question is intentionally political — but when I told my wife this morning what movie I saw last night, she said, “God. There are children being stripped from their mothers, and white dudes are playing tag?”
That may be unfairly reductive — apples and oranges and all that — but if Tag were even a little bit better than amusingly mild to the point of numbness, I don’t think my wife’s comment would’ve registered that much. Genuinely, that really is all this movie amounts to: White dudes (and Hannibal Buress) playing tag for two hours, and while that might sound like a form of escapism, a way to retreat from our 24-hour political hellscape, there’s something about the juxtaposition of Tag with our current cultural environment that highlights just how completely meaningless and insignificant this movie is. I mean: It says nothing. It makes no statement. It takes no stand. Even the jokes are safe and bland. Tag refuses even to be aggressively profane, gross-out disgusting, or awful. It just is. It’s the light-blue polo shirt of comedies. It’s an untoasted bagel with plain cream cheese. It’s a 4-3 baseball game where the winning run is scored in the 6th inning by a sacrifice fly.
Tag is the Ed Helms of comedies.
And the thing is: Though it’s not nearly as outlandish, I loved the article upon which the movie is based. I appreciate the idea of a group of guys maintaining their friendship across the decades through an elaborate game of tag. I love the idea that a real-life guy once broke into his friend’s house in the middle of the night and, after cornering his friend in bed, his wife didn’t lose her shit, she yelled, “RUN!” I sincerely appreciate that dudes are willing to fly all the way to Italy just to surprise-tag a buddy. That is commitment, and I would watch the hell out of that documentary.
But in amping those real-life events into an action-comedy where Jeremy Renner is basically a character out of a spy movie playing tag, the movie loses touch with the meaning behind the game. It’s supposed to be about friendship, but the movie is about how many outlandish scenarios it can create to tell a story about five men playing “You’re it,” but even those outlandish scenarios aren’t outlandish enough to make it particularly interesting. To wit: Ed Helms’ character puts on a wig and mustache and gets a job as a janitor at a firm run by Jon Hamm’s character in order to sneak into his office and tag him while he’s giving an interview to the Wall Street Journal (the reporter, played by Annabelle Wallis, finds the idea of men playing tag so fascinating that she spends the next weekend following these men around to report on the story.)
Ultimately, the movie brings the four characters played by Hamm, Buress, Helms, and Jake Johnson (along with Isla Fisher, who plays Helms’ overly-aggressive wife) to the wedding weekend of a character played by Jeremy Renner, who somehow has managed to elude being tagged in 30 years of playing the game. The wedding weekend is entirely about tagging Renner, although certain events are off limits (the rehearsal dinner, the ceremony, etc. Interestingly, an Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting is fair game). There’s a lot of running, some hitting, and a few fitfully amusing slapstick-y gags — like Jake Johnson being leveled by a swinging log that would have almost certainly killed him in real life — but it never really amounts to much.
Moreover, it’s hard to build a third-act conflict into a game of tag, and that’s where Tag begins to run off the rails. I won’t spoil it, except to say that something so out of bounds happens that the friends contemplate quitting the game until something even worse happens that brings them back together. Neither the bad thing nor the really bad thing jibe with the playful tone of the movie, and director Jeff Tomsic’s attempts to even out the tone surrounding the bad thing and the very bad thing has a way of minimizing the bad thing and the very bad thing, so the entire third act just feels really … off.
Look: Tag is far from a terrible movie. It’s a fine movie, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Whenever pundits argue that comedy on the big screen is dying (something that Deadline seems to do twice a week), I always feel defensive about it, because I don’t want that to happen. I love good comedies. And yet, I can count the number of comedies worth seeing in the theater over the last few years on one hand. Tag is a prime example of a film that is worth exactly the $3.99 rental you and friend spend to watch it on a Tuesday night — there is nothing at all gained by seeing it in a theater. In fact, it may even work to its detriment, because while Tag may be worth watching on the couch in your pajamas, the expectations of the big screen make Tag feel small.