6.5 out of 10
Ed Helms as Hogan “Hoagie” Malloy
Directed by Jeff Tomsic
How far are you willing to go to have fun, and at what point are you just not having fun anymore? That’s the essential question at the heart of Tag, but it’s also quickly becoming the existential question of the R-rated comedy as the genre attempts to keep its recent resurgence going.
For five friends (Helms, Renner, Hamm, Johnson and Buress) who have been playing the same game of tag for thirty years the answer is ‘there is no such thing as too far!’ They’ll lie, cheat, steal, wear disguises, get fake jobs, break down doors and windows, invade funerals, weddings and births to evade the ignominious distinction of being ‘it.’ But all of that is merely child’s play when rumor surfaces that Jerry (Renner) – the only member of the club to never be tagged – is set to retire from the game. With one short week to finally get the ungettable, the gloves really come off.
Though based (loosely, as always) on an actual gang of friends and their own lifelong game of tag, the premise of Tag itself is silly in just the way an R-rated comedy needs to be. Its excuse to let boys be boys is built into its foundation as the gang and their hangers on are continually reminded that play is the only thing that keeps us from getting old. It is the sort of excuse these kinds of films need to be to descend the depths their ratings require in the service of setups and take downs. There is no punchline to gross or juvenile to be chased after.
But is it worth it?
When these sort of things work (for comparison, the first Hangover) they expand the opportunity for surprise – the essence of all good jokes – by pushing what sort of set up and pay off can be considered. When they don’t work (for comparison, all the other Hangover films) they reduce it by winnowing the film’s focus to only the juvenile.
Tag rolls around in that and runs into the same problem – it’s got a handful of different punchlines to recycle and not much more. And it’s a decision which sits at direct counterpoint to its themes. The idea (as it is constantly, endlessly repeated) is not adults acting like little kids in the worst sense of the phrase but the best, playing for the fun of playing without regard to the sometimes stifling needs of adulthood. When it sticks with that idea Tag actually does achieve a sort of nostalgic, play for play’s sake charm.
The rest of the time, it’s kind of lazy. Hamm and Renner clearly enjoy mocking their own screen personas while Johnson and Helms are given the sort of shenigans they can do in their sleep by this point. At the same time Tomsic criminally under uses Burress and Fisher, two of the funniest comedians working in film. While the big four are given fully developed story lines and subplots, Burress tends to get stuck in the background mumbling to himself while Fisher is left on the sidelines screaming instructions because girl’s are not allowed to play. (Which is at least better than Bibb who spends all her screen time holding a rictus grin like she was auditioning for a Joker movie).
The idea itself is charming enough, the main actors are skillful enough, that Tag is often as engaging as it clearly wants to be. Even at its worst it only manages to illuminate how much better the best parts are (here’s a hint: they all revolve around the adults actually playing tag) and leave a vague hint of disappointment behind rather than dislike. Like the runner up in a good game of tag, so close but no cigar.