It’s been a banner year for films about adults playing instead of adulting, and the trend has gotten surprisingly hard to resist. Unlike Game Night, though, Tag is based on a true story, and its marketing trumpets that fact in tongue-in-cheek fashion, promising a reward of low expectations: “Can you believe that this thin premise was based on something that actually happened?” But the joke is on the marketing team, because as it turns out, it’s all too easy to imagine this story playing out among real American adults today. As easy to believe that it was written up in the Wall Street Journal.
The lede: Five grade-school friends now approaching middle age have been playing the world’s longest-running game of tag, and only one of them has never been caught. Every year, it’s open season just for the month of May, and the longer the game has been going on, the hungrier four of them have become to finally get the drop on the fifth, Jerry (Jeremy Renner). When Hogan (Ed Helms) tells the other three that Jerry is about to be married (in a ceremony the others weren’t invited to attend) and plans to retire from the game, it’s like the proverbial drop of blood to a pool of piranhas.
Tag could have easily settled for rehashing Wedding Crashers, or virtually every other comedy of mortification that Helms has starred in to date. Miraculously, the film steers its focus toward the same elements that turned the article it’s based on into a viral human-interest story. It ultimately doesn’t flatter the intelligence but does respect the characters’ camaraderie. Thanks to uniformly fine work from its ensemble cast—Jon Hamm, Hannibal Burress, and Jake Johnson play the other three members of the tag circle—Tag leaves you feeling more elated than wrung out. It’s no funhouse, just a fun house.
Much like Game Night, Tag is executed with far more élan than the bland competence nearly every studio comedy flaunts in our current era. Director Jeff Tomsic—in his debut feature film—choreographs the tag sequences as though auditioning to be Edgar Wright’s understudy, but more importantly he lets the film focus on moments shared between his actors.
Tag, though, has a predictable woman problem, as its female characters only seem to aspire toward being one of the boys. Both Hogan’s wife, played ferociously by Isla Fisher, and Jerry’s fiancé (Leslie Bibb) are amusing strictly in the context that they’re both desperately waiting to get tagged into the game. Still, for as dumb as Tag is on the surface, it offers amity, emotional support, awkward tears, the specter of death, and the spectacle of ass-punching slapstick all rolled up in one somehow cohesive collection of all-good spare parts. Tag is exactly the Terms of Endearment our era deserves.