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“Hunting season.” That’s how a man described the annual month-long game of tag he’s played with his high school buds for decades. For over 25 years, his gang has hidden behind cars, set up stings and cloaked themselves in disguise just for the thrill of saying: “You’re it.” One guy even got tagged at his dad’s funeral. It’s a true story – the Wall Street Journal profiled the dudes in 2013 – and you can write the scene that comes next. A Hollywood executive spots the headline, grabs the phone and barks: “Get me Ed Helms.”
The relentlessly funny comedy Tag pairs the ever-twerpy star of The Hangover with a posse that includes Jon Hamm as an egotistical CEO, Jake Johnson as a sad-sack stoner divorcee and Hannibal Buress in his usual part of the underwritten sidekick who steals scenes by mumbling the best jokes. Ever since they graduated and spread east from Spokane, Washington in the 1990s – director Jeff Tomsic clues us into the era with the Toad the Wet Sprocket poster in Helms’ childhood playroom— Hoagie (Helms), Callahan (Hamm), Chilli (Johnson) and Sable (Buress) have spent every May sneaking around and smacking each other on the back. Only each other. Hoagie’s aggressive wife Anna (Isla Fisher) has never gotten to officially play, thanks to a no-girls-allowed rule forged in boyhood. As for fifth player Jerry (Jeremy Renner), the alpha jock has never been tapped. He’s that fast.
Tag keeps them young, or at least acting like it until their knees give out vaulting a fire escape. Ironically, it also keeps these competitive best friends at a distance. When Jerry plans his wedding – 31 May, according to his hard-headed fiancee’s (Leslie Bibb) dream date – he doesn’t even invite his pals. If they attend, they’ll just tackle him at the pulpit. Besides, they’re guaranteed to show anyway. As Hoagie vows: “We get Jerry now or we die. Eventually.”
How does the game mesh with their adult lives? Poorly. In an opening scene, Hoagie sabotages Callahan’s big interview with – oh hi! – the Wall Street Journal, who’s managed to be written into the film by recasting original journalist Russell Adams as beautiful blonde Rebecca Crosby (Annabelle Wallis), who impulsively decides to city-hop across America to Jerry’s wedding with these strangers without packing a toothbrush or a personality. Screenwriters Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen don’t even hammer her into the script as a love interest, making Crosby’s presence so extraneous I kept checking the backseats of cars, expecting the film would forget she’s supposed to be there. Orson Welles might nod that he used the same reporter plot device in Citizen Kane. But for all the great, dumb pleasures of Tag, even the film itself would agree that deciphering why these guys play is even less weighty than Rosebud.
Tomsic is aware of the cruelties of the game: the injuries, the trampled bystanders, the lonely geeks who long to join and the PTSD-like paranoia that’s forced Sable into therapy (which he also seems to be directing at his wife who gets mentioned once and forgotten). He’s built out this world to be about more than nostalgia, though there’s plenty of that, too, from cassette tapes to a needle-drop of the 1995 Pharcyde hit Runnin’ that’s so pitch-perfect he plays it twice. (U Can’t Touch This must have been too expensive.) The script cheapens itself squeezing in empty gags about a homophobic – and possibly closeted – receptionist (Thomas Middleditch) and Hoagie’s mom’s (Nora Dunn) inappropriate crush on one of his childhood playmates. (It’s shockingly not Hamm, who here maximizes his elastic eyebrows and cartoonish good looks.) Tag is better when it fumbles for the boundaries of the game. Beyond “amendment B: no ass-punching”, what’s the line between sporting and sociopathic? Is it Chilli’s insistence that Jerry’s wedding is a ruse? Or is it our suspicion that Jerry seems capable of doing exactly that?
Tag doesn’t give Tomsic many chances for directorial flair, but when Jerry is in danger of being touched, the cinematography shifts into a thriller. The shadows sharpen, harsh white light rakes against Renner’s pores, and suddenly the Bourne Legacy hero has leaped from comedy back to the battlefield where he belongs. Renner looks like a comic, but this is his first chance to prove he can hang – even if, like Jason Statham in Spy, his misfit seriousness is the joke. He fights both mentally and physically, inviting an ex-girlfriend (Rashida Jones) to the wedding reception as a honeypot trap, and mastering defensive moves that fend off attackers without making skin contact. By the time Tomsic steals a camera move from Sam Raimi’s horror flick The Evil Dead, we’re primed to agree with Sable when he groans: “Our friend is a psychopath and this is scary.”
Surprisingly, there’s emotional resonance in this slapstick flick about friends who are terrified to hug. Add that to the solid chemistry between the leads, and Tag is a fine callback to the sprawling ensemble comedies of the 1980s, back when the real-life tag team graduated high school. It’s a solid summer film that will melt away from memory by fall. Though, if it does well, you can guarantee that the studio that churned out three Hangovers is hoping for a sequel. After all, this game never ends.
- Tag is released in the US on 15 June and in the UK on 29 June
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Tag review – fact-based ensemble comedy is a slapstick winner | Comedy films