Tag is one of those movies that struggles to live up to its premise

This Apatowian all-star comedy has a lot going for it, but it doesn’t live up to its own (true) story.

Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, Ed Helms, Jon Hamm and Isla Fisher in Tag

A movie like Tag just about pitches itself. Based on a Wall Street Journal article about a group of middle-aged men who have been playing the same game of tag for over two decades, it’s a thoroughly irresistible premise that also keeps it open enough for adaptation — surely, no one is a stickler for a completely accurate retelling of that particular story. Tag is also, in that sense, a movie that is never going to be as good as it sounds in the pitch stage; it’s such a perfectly succinct premise for a film that any elaboration is certain to cheapen the impact of the simple logline. The fact is we dream that Tag will be made into something other than a charming assembly-line mainstream comedy, but there’s really no way it can’t be.

Hoagie (Ed Helms), Callahan (Jon Hamm), Chili (Jake Johnson) and Sable (Hannibal Buress) have been friends since grade school. Though they’ve all moved on and away from each other, they have always devoted the month of May to a never-ending game of tag that takes them cross-country, putting on disguises and often risking grievous bodily harm in order to tag their friends. None of them have ever managed to tag Jerry (Jeremy Renner) in those 30 years, however, and he has announced that following his wedding at the end of that year, he will retire from the game. The friends decide to crash Jerry’s wedding (they weren’t invited, of course, to minimize chances of ill-placed tags) and finally tag him once — for posterity. A Wall Street Journal writer (Annabelle Wallis) improbably tags along, as does Hoagie’s aggressively competitive wife Anna (Isla Fisher).

As you may have guessed from this short summary, Tag exists somewhere between surprisingly sincere Apatowian buddy comedy about man’s fundamental refusal to grow up and a slapstick-y action comedy featuring CGI-augmented pratfalls and a thoroughly insane amount of slow-motion. As director Jeff Tomsic comes from a sketch/stand-up background (this is his first feature, though he has many stand-up specials and television episodes under his belt), the quality of the comedy far outweighs the anonymous-to-chaotic nature of the action. Most comedies of this ilk outstay their welcome at two over-the-top ironic action scenes, but Tag goes above and beyond the call of duty with at least half-a-dozen visually turbulent sequences that manage to be more or less devoid of laughs.

(A lot of press has been devoted to the fact that Renner broke both his arms filming the movie and therefore has “CGI arms” during the film. As much as I would like to inform you that this is another “Superman’s moustache” situation, this story has either been blown way out of proportion or the CGI budget on a movie about playing tag is significantly higher than on one of the most expensive superhero movies ever made.)

As an umpteenth exploration of why man-children decide to be man-children, Tag is significantly more effective. For one thing, it’s literally about playing a game that everyone in the world agrees is thoroughly stupid, so the script (by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen) spares us the overt speechifying about growing up and leaving childish things behind. It’s also the rare studio comedy to have its characters stew and fester in their own moral failings. While I would hardly put this up against pitch-black comedies like Very Bad Things, I have to say I was very surprised that the film takes the time to revel in the consequences of morally dubious actions for that long, sometime entirely foregoing the whole “Gotcha! It was the opposite of what you thought all along” cop-out that these kinds of films inevitably take. It even ends on an inarguably downer note, which is straight-up innovative in the world of mainstream studio comedies.

Despite a 12-year span of ages within the supposed childhood friend group, the leads have enough charisma and chemistry to carry most of the film’s slack hangout scenes. One wishes that Ed Helms wasn’t stuck doing the kind of role he’s done so often before, but it’s worth it for a scene-stealing performance by Hannibal Buress. Buress has quietly been sneaking around and being the best part of forgettable movies like the first Daddy’s Home or Neighbors 2, but here he gets the biggest chance yet to walk away with the movie, which he does rather effortlessly. I have to admit that Buress is one of my “whatever this guy says is funny, even if it’s not” guys, but it’s also hard to deny that he has both the worst-written character and the movie’s best lines, which is no mean feat in itself. The film generally suffers from an over-expansive ensemble that gives its talented cast few chances to really break out — though I will give it tenuous brownie points for making sure that its underwritten female characters aren’t just shrews and whores.

When it comes down to it, Tag is a movie about tag in which the tag sequences are by and large the worst thing about it. As a dopey and derivative bromance comedy, I’ve seen much worse; it moves fast, (mercifully) does not feature an air-sucking hammy supporting performance and actually dares to get a little inappropriately heavy when the inevitable moment where the lessons roll-out happen. It also isn’t too great at the thing it sets out to do, but even that might not be its fault. After all, it was likely never going to be better than its pitch. Credit where credit is due, though — it’s a great fucking pitch. ■

Tag opens in theatres on Friday, June 15. Watch the trailer here: