By Liam Lacey
Tag is one of those comedies where straight actors (Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner) pull out their goofball slapstick sides to show us what good sports they are. The film’s story — about a group middle-aged men that have played a game of tag since childhood — has a real-life basis in a 2013 Washington Journal story, and sounds like a sweet story about enduring masculine friendship. It sounds innocent enough.
Yet it’s obvious from the get-go that a more significant source of inspiration for writers Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen and director Jeff Tomsic is the trio of Hangover films, with their combination of bro-bonding and gross-outs gags. That includes the presence of Hangover star Ed Helms, now with a new guy gang including Hamm, Renner, Jake Johnson (TV’s The New Girl) and comedian Hannibal Buress.
The five friends, originally from Spokane, Washington, spend May of each year playing “tag.” That means criss-crossing the country dressed in disguises, stalking men at work and home, breaking into each other’s homes and finding elaborate ways to elude each other, leaving one person “it” for the next 11 months.
Helms stars as Hoagie, a veterinarian who, in an opening scene, takes a job as a janitor to gain access to the insurance company where Bob (Hamm) is the new CEO. Bob is in the middle of an interview with a newspaper reporter (Annabelle Wallis) when Hoagie tags him. The reporter promptly ditches her story and joins the men on a cross-country game of tag, where they stop periodically to deliver chunks of exposition about their complicated and endlessly revisable game.
The plot concerns four of the members’ efforts to finally tag Jerry (Renner), after decades in which he has managed to go untagged. Soon, they join up with Hoagie’s wife Anna (Isla Fisher), a manically intense competitor who always seems to be either getting hurt or hurting others. I think she’s supposed to be outrageously funny, though the schtick feels forced.
Next, they’re joined by unemployed pot-head Chilli (Johnson), and Sable (comedian Buress, whose digressive musings are the one reliably funny element here). Otherwise, I found myself puzzled by the film’s often sadistic humour, and the strain of finding laughs in everything from masturbating with a stuffed toy to a miscarriage to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
The film culminates with Jerry’s preparations for his upcoming marriage with Susan (Leslie Bibb), a teeth-baring country club type determined not to let Jerry’s friends spoil the May 31 ceremony. Along with Susan and the ferocious Anna, there’s a third woman in the story: Rashida Jones as Cheryl, the woman who came between high-achieving Bob and slacker Chilli. Like the other women in the film, she serves as the movie’s internal audience for the men’s antics. She looks affectionately exasperated at their immature schemes, then serves to encourage them to recognize their bond when the final act takes an unexpected turn.
The crude if silly humour of the movie’s first 90 minutes is followed by a dollop of sentiment at the film’s end, resulting in a case of tonal whiplash... like a slap with a wet fish followed by a forced bear hug. No doubt Tag means to be a rude but heart-warming trifle, but it just isn’t funny enough to get past its awful taste.
Tag. Directed by Jeff Tomsic. Written by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen. Starring Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, and Leslie Bibb. Opens wide June 15.