I’m a sucker for nostalgia, whether the blatant Stranger Things sort that nods to my childhood, or the grander odes to what it means to looking back like Grosse Point Blank. My own nostalgia is tied up with friendship, with the connections that continue through years – decades, even – even when physical proximity is gone. People you know. Places that are in your bones.
So, Tag – based on a true story – checked an immediate box. A bunch of dudes who’ve spent their entire life playing tag with one another? And it has Jeremy Renner in it?
Tag’s plot isn’t much more fleshed out than the hook. Every May, five friends (Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, and Renner) resume a game of tag they’ve been playing since adolescence. When the movie opens, we learn that Renner’s character, Jerry, has never been tagged in the decades-long game. Hoagie (Helms) is determined to tag him this year.
At this point, there’s a decision viewers need to make about Tag. Hoagie – a successful veterinarian – is applying for a job as a janitor at Bob Callahan’s (Hamm) company. Complete with wig, ridiculous mustache, and company duds, he finds Hamm and attempts to tag him during an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Admittedly, it’s a bit much. But it’s also the moment where the movie begins to elevate comedically, with Jon Hamm attempting to escape Helm’s tag. “Alright, this is happening,” he proclaims, throwing a chair against a shatter-proof window. It flies back and knocks him down for a cheap, trailer-worthy laugh.The question is: are you in, or are you out?
I wish I could say I was out. But I’ve always had a soft spot for bro-y, buddy comedies (the Hangover, Superbad) so I was able to suspend the belief that grown men would (should?) risk their personal and professional lives for a child’s game.
From there, Hoagie enlists the rest of the crew in his mission. They – with the help of Hoagie’s over-the-top wife (Isla Fisher) find Randy “Chilli” Cilliano (Johnson) a recently divorced pothead played to perfection by Jake Johnson, and Sable (Buress), who is easily the funniest character in the movie.
The mission is simple: tag Jerry.Turns out, they know exactly where Jerry will be this year, as he’s getting married. So they pack up and head out to their childhood stomping grounds of Spokane, Washington.
Any good nostalgia movie has this move, the moment when the main character goes back and remembers where it all began. Remembers why they are on this quest. The impact is short lived with Tag, as they rush to trap Jerry by using his wedding preparations against him. When Jerry shows up to see why his reservation for a reception venue has been cancelled, the movie really hits its stride.
Listen, Tag isn’t going to win awards. It’s the sort of movie that’s easy to dismiss for its perceived (and real, more on that in a moment) flaws. But the moment when Renner walks on screen for the first time, I defy any viewer not to be immediately intrigued.
The boys attack, trying to tag Jerry, who responds in exactly the way we expect. Flawless. Precise. What is surprising is the amount of humor that is squeezed out of what could’ve been a typical action sequence. Every time they try to tag Jerry, the movie slows down and we are invited into the inner monologue of the players. Alternating between hilarious, poignant, and self-aware, this was the most surprising – and best – part of the movie.
That may seem like a dig, but it isn’t. In order for a movie like Tag to work, you need to find a hook that takes us beyond the absurdity of 40-something men playing, you know, tag. And if the movie had left it here, Tag would be a great, middle-of-the-road comedy that, if you stumbled upon it late at night, you’d probably enjoy watching for 90 minutes.
Instead, the ending of the movie attempts to pull Tag from its inherently goofy DNA and place it in a new stratosphere of movie, where this game has to have a larger, life-or-death meaning behind it. Nobody wants this. Nobody needs this. Mainly because that larger meaning is already inherent to the concept: lifelong friendship and the distractions adults use to maintain some semblance of our former, youthful selves.
As the credits roll, we get to see homemade movies of the men who inspired this story. They are having fun. They obviously care deeply about one another. And Tag, in its better moments, manages to embody their unique friendship—the sort that makes somebody disguise themselves as an elderly woman and chase a guy they’ve known since elementary school across a mall parking lot. Much like the movie, it might not be for everybody. But it does have its moments.