By Preston Wilder
Alas, poor Tag. It tries hard, and I know it means well. It’s based around a rather lovely quote (“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing”) and a rather lovely true story, bits of which are glimpsed before the end credits. It has everything except Will Ferrell, which is not necessarily a great loss. Yet it’s just a bad idea – or maybe not bad but just unworkable, especially when it’s trying to be a wild Hollywood comedy as well as a sweet tale of friendship.
Trouble is, it can’t go deep, or risk being offensive to the real people who presumably gave their permission for this (it’s based on an article in the Wall Street Journal). What, after all, can we say about five grown men – played by Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress and Jeremy Renner – who still play tag, the kids’ playground game where whoever’s ‘it’ chases the others in order to tag them? Each year, the month of May is set aside for tag, meaning any one of our heroes can receive a surprise visit from the current It Guy, and the game is taken seriously; one friend gets tagged while having surgery, another at his father’s funeral. All in good fun? I suppose so. Still, there’s a word for men who behave like they’re still nine years old, and that word is ‘manchild’ – just like there’s a phrase for a game that depends on trying to avoid being touched by another man, and that phrase is ‘repressed homosexual panic’.
A documentary might’ve explored these aspects. It could probe the players’ private lives, find out if these guys are unhappy in some way. Is this annual burst of childhood just a way of escaping adulthood? The home-movie footage at the end doesn’t look so bad, more a friendly tradition – an elaborate way of greeting your buddy – than a mad competition. The victims look startled, then laugh and hug. Maybe Tag doesn’t go deep because there’s nowhere to go, because the real-life source is in fact quite anodyne – or maybe it prefers not to complicate matters with actual psychology. Fair enough. But the only alternative is to go full-on comedy, playing the material for farce – and the game, in itself, isn’t rich enough for that.
Obsession is funny, but at some point you need a little more; there’s a reason why those Wile E. Coyote cartoons only last 10 minutes. The players in real life are presumably similar, being childhood friends with a common interest. The players in the film are all over the place. Helms is a gormless family man, with the great Isla Fisher as his wife (who, while not an official player – no girls allowed! – takes the game just a little too seriously). Hamm is a corporate smoothie, Johnson a jobless stoner, Buress a quirky intellectual who worries about the double meaning of ‘bi-weekly’. Renner’s the wild card, a healthy-living maniac who’s never been tagged. It’s hard to imagine these five ‘friends’ even having a conversation, let alone spending their childhood together.
Does it matter? Not really; it’s a comedy, after all. But it makes the film shallow, which is partly why it runs out of steam. The actual ‘tag’ scenes, manic slapstick chases and battles, become repetitive. The throwaway jokes are sometimes lively – Isla pretends to be French; Jake confuses Episcopalians with pescatarians – but you soon realise that it’s all throwaways; the main joke is a concept (‘Adults play kids’ game’) instead of a joke. Tag gets desperate, makes the guys nearly waterboard someone before relenting (“That’s a war crime. It’s not really who we are”), finally throws down the poignant true-story trump card – but by then it’s too late. It’s become annoying.
There’s nothing seriously wrong with this movie, yet everything is wrong with this movie. It’s hollow; it’s a non-starter. It’s a bad idea, at least in this version. Tag does actually hint at more interesting angles, but only in passing. The game includes an amendment against “asshole punching” (I assume that’s poetic licence on the part of the filmmakers), a nod at the crypto-gay overtones lurking behind this five-way bromance. The guys reunite in Ed’s parents’ home, hanging out in his old teenage ‘war room’ with its table football and Nirvana posters – a reflection of their stunted development. Then the moment passes, and we’re back to golf-cart chases and crashing through screen doors. In a word, Tag is ragtag.
Amazingly, the ending still works. After the climax, with its tiresome stab at Hollywood homily (“Maybe it’s time to grow up a little…”), when we see that video footage of the actual guys playing tag, it still somehow works, despite the emptiness of the preceding 95 minutes. There’s such real, simple joy in their faces – the joy of seeing old friends, and recalling their childhood together – a joy that’s largely missing from the actual movie. Tag tries to laugh at five grown men playing a children’s game, and mostly falls flat. Maybe it shouldn’t be laughing.
DIRECTED BY Jeff Tomsic
STARRING Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson
US 2018 100 mins