Tag turns an outrageous-yet-true story into one that’s just outrageous, with details that couldn’t possibly be true. Based on a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, it’s about five men in their late 30s who’ve been playing the same game of Tag since grade school in Spokane. The game is operative only in the month of May, during which the participants (now living around the country) never know when one of their old pals is going to jump out from behind a bush and tag them.
That much is true. Well, it’s 10 guys, and they started playing in high school, and in February not May, but close enough. The WSJ feature describes some of their elaborate methods of sneaking up on each other, and how it’s really just an excuse for the old friends to keep in touch (as it were). The movie, directed by first-timer Jeff Tomsic from a screenplay by Rob McKittrick (Waiting…) and Mark Steilen, exaggerates some of those methods and counter-methods into complicated Rube Goldberg machines that extend well past the limits of plausibility. When the four are pursuing the one who’s never been tagged, they become Elmer Fudds hunting Bugs Bunny. It’s amusing, but it doesn’t feel authentic — and authenticity was supposed to be the whole point here.
The one who treats the game most earnestly as a friendship-preserving tool is Hogan Malloy (Ed Helms), who successfully tags corporate muckety-muck Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm) and reveals what he has discovered: Jerry (Jeremy Renner), now a prominent fitness guru and the one who’s never been tagged, is getting married soon — in May! He’ll be a sitting duck! (Jerry’s fiancee was inflexible about having a May wedding, and Jerry was so intent on preserving his streak that he simply didn’t invite his oldest friends.) Hogan and Bob drop everything and fly to Denver, where they collect divorced stoner Chilli (Jake Johnson), then to Portland to get neurotic Sable (Hannibal Buress), then to Spokane for the wedding weekend. (Everyone has the money and free time to just do this. Also, if Buress, the one black participant, seems like a token, you’re probably right: In real life, all 10 players are white.)
The five are accompanied by Hogan’s wife, Anna (Isla Fisher), who is intensely competitive despite not actually being in the game, and by Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis), a personality-free WSJ reporter who was interviewing Bob for a corporate puff piece when Hogan showed up and made her aware of this far more interesting story, which she’s now writing about instead. That may reflect how the Wall Street Journal feature came to be (though the reporter was male), but Rebecca serves no purpose in the movie and should have been cut.
Anyway, they establish a truce with Jerry and his fiancee (Leslie Bibb) by which they won’t do any tagging during the rehearsal dinner or the wedding itself (which they are now invited to). That leaves the rest of the weekend for the four-plus-Anna to pursue Jerry and for Jerry to outsmart them. To that end, he summons Cheryl Deakins (Rashida Jones), whom Chilli and Bob both dated back in the day, hoping her presence will create conflict and distraction (which it does).
There’s a smattering of good lines in the screenplay, outnumbered by lines that aren’t bad but were supposed to be hilarious. The five leads are likable and funny individually; as a group, though, they don’t gel. You never buy that they’ve been friends for 30 years, or that they’re even really friends now. (Is it because Hamm and Renner are 12 years older than Buress and seven years older than Johnson? Maybe!) The movie wants very much to convey the bonds of friendship, including the way close friends use gallows humor in dark times, but the execution is lackluster, and undone by the unbelievability of Jerry’s booby traps and foreknowledge anyway. Even if you’re in the mood for yet another comedy about adult men acting like children, the way the sincerity and silliness collide here is as awkward as Jon Hamm and Hannibal Buress pretending they went to school together.