Everything is fair game in Tag

Tag. Directed by Jeff Tomsic. Starring Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson and Hannibal Buress. Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Tag is an elegy to simpler times, when kids played kick the can until dark, Monopoly games lasted for days and summer seemed to stretch on forever.

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It’s also based on a true story: in 2013 The Wall Street Journal reported on a group of friends from Spokane, Wash., who had been playing a decades-long game of tag. Every February the men would go to elaborate lengths to tag each other: they took flights, hired actors to run interference, and waited in each others’ bushes for days at a time.

(Side note: I wish I had thought of it sooner. Our family has been playing an international game of “Tig, you’re het” with my Uncle Peter in Scotland for over 30 years. That story would need to be subtitled for North American audiences.)

We start in Stranger Things territory, with the boys riding their BMX bikes and blithely tagging each other throughout the neighbourhood. The film’s iteration of the group is played in adulthood by Jon Hamm (as Callahan), Jeremy Renner (Jerry), Hannibal Buress (Sable), Jake Johnson (Chilli) and Ed Helms (Hoagie). Hoagie heralds in the month of May with a highly orchestrated “you’re it” at the workplace of his friend Callahan, delivering a tag along with the shocking news that their friend Jerry wants out of the game.

Jerry is a legend. Jerry has never, ever been tagged.

As luck would have it, Callahan is being interviewed by a reporter from The Wall Street Journal (Annabelle Wallis) when the first tag of February comes his way. She knows a real story when she sees one, and so she joins the men on a cross-country trip to round up the tag team and get Jerry once and for all. Also joining the fray is Isla Fisher as Anna, Hoagie’s potty-mouthed, uber-competitive Tag wife. (She’s also a mom, and Anna running a household is a sequel I’d definitely pay money for.)

Things get predictably silly in Jeff Tomsic’s feature debut. Sable is a mess of neuroses, Chilli is perpetually high, and Jerry has upped his game to include chloroform, snares and disguises. Jerry is also getting married, which increases the potential for public embarrassment and toppled wedding cakes considerably. “Are you going to grow old, or are you going to keep playing?” implores Hoagie, the heart of the group.

It’s a game with few safe zones, so the workplace, hospital delivery rooms, and even family funerals are all fair game. Filmmakers enliven the tag battles with an effective use of stoner-cam to show Chilli’s flight plan, and slo-mo camerawork – complete with SWAT-style internal monologue – to chart Jerry’s tag genius. (All that ducking and dodging is no joke: Renner broke both his arms during filming of one key tag scene.)

But the pacing is off in this high-energy game. Brian Dennehy appears for a hilarious cameo, but Thomas Middleditch’s (Silicon Valley) one-note scene runs too long. Steve Berg as a barman/tag wannabe is good for a few laughs but Nora Dunn as Hoagie’s mom is misused. Rashida Jones is introduced as the middle-school mutual love interest of both Chilli and Callahan, a storyline that goes nowhere fast. And poor Wallis is dead weight, left to stand in the background while the boys play. 

From a nostalgia standpoint, Tag is perfectly poised to bring in parents who are already lamenting a summer spent on phones and iPads, but as a buddy movie it fails to connect. Tag is good fun when the boys are running around: it’s when they stop and talk that the narrative takes a time out.

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