All of us, to some degree, end up defined by our childhoods. Our friends, our enemies, our joys, and our shames. If we look at them, chances are we can find echoes of them back as far as we can recall. For the characters in TAG, finding their past in their present requires far less effort.

But does their childhood equal a kind of movie worth seeing? Or is it like watching someone’s interminable slideshow of the time they went to Washington, DC when they were 13?

TAG: Kevin, Chilli, and Hoagie
Hannibal Buress gets the lead out as Jake Johnson and Ed Helms cheer him on in a scene from TAG. (Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures)

The Idea Behind TAG

Inspired by the repeatedly misappropriated quote, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” five childhood friends have spent the past 20 years enmeshed in an annual month-long game of tag. Despite the fact that they have grown up and mostly moved away from their hometown to other locations in the Pacific Northwest, every May they re-engage.

This year, however, might be the last. Long-time champion Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner) — the only participant never tagged, even once — has decided to marry Susan Rollins (Leslie Bibb) and step down from the game. Convinced this is the year the other four can get Jerry, “Hoagie” Malloy (Ed Helms) sets about persuading the rest of the quartet to join forces.

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First is insurance CEO Bob Callahan (Jon Helms). He refuses to even wait long enough to finish an interview with Wall Street Journal writer Rebecca Crosby (Annabelle Wallis) before following Malloy’s lead. Crosby, no fool, tags (no pun intended) along for the ride, seeing a story in yet another group of men acting like boys. Next up is burnout and recent divorcee “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson) who appears to have nothing going on besides getting high with his ailing father in an apartment hazy enough to look like it has a fog machine perpetually on.

Finally, the trio grabs Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress) mid-therapy session. After some brief ambivalence, he takes two weeks off from work — he plans to hit the lake after — and joins up too. Then it is back home to crash Jerry’s wedding and force him, just once, to be It. Except, well, Jerry’s a fanatic about Tag and his future wife is a fanatic about her wedding being perfect meaning this mission will be nowhere near simple.

The Writing

Right from jump street the script by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen makes the friendships feel authentic. Often when movies return characters back to their hometown, there are moments where the group reminisce about times gone by, revisit past landmarks, and so on. Here, the quartet feels like friends separated by distance who still remain active in one another’s lives. There is brief catching up, moments that show a shared past, but the script never forces it.

Additionally, the script makes the friends feel differently without it ever seeming bizarre they would have been friends. They talk differently but share certain turns of phrase. They have wildly different lives, but their chemistry feels authentic. It might be unbelievable that an unemployed burnout, a neurotic social worker, a married over enthusiastic veterinarian, and a workaholic CEO would be able to maintain a connection years after high school. And yet, when the friends get together, the script erases that doubt.

The screenplay also happens to be funny. It uses its strong sense of character to mine smart jokes that come quickly without beating the audience into submission. The jokes feel authentic to the characters saying them. It is never as laugh out loud funny as, say, GAME NIGHT achieved earlier this year but the script boasts a comfort level in its humor that NIGHT doesn’t. NIGHT was professionals entertaining you.

TAG is you hanging with your funniest friends. The only stumbling block comes when the screenplay tries to get serious late in the third act. Words-wise, it just cannot make the switch. The declarations feel forced, the emotions stilted.

TAG: Jerry and Bob
Jon Hamm thinks he has caught Jeremy Renner unaware in a scene from TAG. He has not. (Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures)

Casting the Quartet of TAG

Helms — as our defacto POV character — has a subtle mania that works nicely for Hoagie. He feels the most settled — great job, good relationship with his wife that obviously gets him, financial stability — but he also seems the most dedicated to the game. It is a twist on the “character hasn’t grown up” trope.  He’s happy, but he could be, you sense, happier. And part of him knows it too.

This is probably Hamm’s most low-key comedic role as when he tends to go funny, he goes big as in 30 ROCK or BRIDESMAIDS. As a result, he’s more of a straight man here. He knows this whole thing is dumb. He will roll his eyes at it. When the time comes, his feet still propel him forward right alongside the group.

Johnson does a nice job of making Chilli, arguably the worst off of his friends, the most comfortable in his skin. Trading in a lot of the livewire neuroticism he brings to roles like Nick in THE NEW GIRL or a lot of his work with director Joe Swanberg (WIN IT ALL, DRINKING BUDDIES) for a sort of easy swagger, Chilli has no illusions about who he is. The return of teen crush Cheryl Deakins (Rashida Jones) discombobulates him some, but we see the same happens to Bob. Besides, in all other arenas, Chilli seems totally accepting of a life that has taken a bad turn on him. He’s simply too cool to be stressed about it.

Buress is, well, Buress. Off-kilter, low-key, and killer funny. There is not a moment that he does not find the perfect grace note for a scene or just the right spin on a line to turn it into a laugh.

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Casting the “Champ” of TAG

In some ways, Renner has the hardest role. By nature of being the “untagged,” he is also the most remote. Don’t worry if that doesn’t initially occur to you. The script can’t help but hammer away at again and again. However, if he’s just a cipher, he won’t be compelling. Who cares if the quartet spends the entire movie trying to tag a piece of cardboard, right?

Renner manages to play both sides of the fence though. He is ultra-competitive to the Nth degree but in something of an oblivious way. He is very aware that he’s the best at tag. Alas, he never seems to realize that might be a sign he’s trying too damn hard. Additionally, in the movie’s quiet moments — during truces or when he has Hoagie pinned to a mall floor with a walker — he seems like a genuinely nice guy.

Despite his distance, he obviously cares about his friends and aware enough to ask relevant questions. The other people around him as well — mall security guards, fellow members of a support group—seem to like him as well. The cumulative effect is making it clear that Jerry could be a good friend. Instead, he has gotten too caught up in his reputation as “the best.”

TAG: Bob, Hoagie, and Chilli
Jon Hamm, Ed Helms, and Jake Johnson appear stunned by stairs in a moment from TAG. (Courtesy of Warner Brother Pictures)

Casting the Rest of the TAG Call Sheet

Something TAG is not great at is how it treats the women in the movie. I don’t mean they make them idiots or subject them to violence. I just mean there is not a whole lot for them to do.

On the plus side are Isla Fisher and Nora Dunn as Hoagie’s wife Anna and his wife Linda, respectively. I can’t remember a role since WEDDING CRASHERS that I thought seemed quite as well-tuned to Fisher’s energy. She merges over the top competitiveness—despite not being in the game — and a kind of playful but realistic sexuality. The result is her once again being incandescent on-screen. Why can’t Hollywood figure her out and do more with her?

Dunn, on the other hand, is an unabashed flirt. She propositions Chilli every time she sees him with a shameless ease. The part is super thin. However, her being 100% typical mom AND 100% ready to get on Chilli at once is great. On the loss side are Wallis and Bibb. Both aren’t bad, but they just have so little. Bibb is one kind of perfectionist for most of the movie before being revealed as another more fun kind.

Wallis asks a lot of questions but does more than react. It is disappointing for both as each has moments that hint at what they could’ve been. Bibb as Susan has this kind of panicked cock-eyed energy that could’ve been fun to see run wilder. Wallis as Rebecca, meanwhile, has one great scene where she very much becomes one of the guys. The movie could’ve benefited from more of her being sucked into the game instead of mostly being used as a setup/excuse for exposition.

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Filming

Jeff Tomsic has never directed a theatrical feature until now, although he has years of TV credits. However, he seems to have used those TV chops to good effect here. Mixing in the visual styles of other genres — action and horror in particular — he makes TAG yet another comedic film this year that uses more visual flair than we’ve come to expect. I thought a lot about GAME NIGHT’s directing–a comedy that offered similar genre borrowing visuals–while watching TAG. And, like NIGHT, I wish TAG had an overall more stylish approach, rather than just specific moments of visual signifiers.

There is one moment I do have to specifically call out, though. As noted in the Writing section above, this film rarely delivers when it tries for heart. However, during the third act, there is a wordless distant shot of the entire group running down a hallway. Unfortunately, I can’t set the scene better than that without spoilers.

It reminds me, oddly, of a half-remembered review of the book HOW TO BE GOOD. The reviewer refers to a final scene in the book as a perfect distillation of marriage. This image, of the friends racing down a hallway despite the heaviness they have just endured, feels similar. Like the perfect distillation of childhood friendships carried into adulthood. It nails the heart way better than any of the lines before it managed.

TAG: Most of the cast
Annabelle Wallis, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Ed Helms, Isla Fisher, and Hannibal Buress walk it out all cool-like in TAG. (Courtesy of Warner Brother Pictures)

That’s a Wrap

This has been a surprisingly good year for mainstream big studio comedies triumphing over bad trailers and underwhelming sounding premises. TAG joins the ranks of GAME NIGHT and BLOCKERS in this way, delivering the goods throughout.

I only wish the movie had better utilized the talented women and better realized the serious moments. Nonetheless, because I can’t resist this pun, TAG is certainly a game I’d recommend joining.

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