“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
This quote is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but its real origins lie in G. Stanley Hall’s 1904 book Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education, where it is followed by this:
“…for play is, at bottom, growth, and at the top of the intellectual scale it is the eternal type of research from sheer love of truth.”
No one could accuse the bright, breezy, occasionally dumb summer comedies Tag and Uncle Drew of having a sheer love of truth. But amidst all the pratfalls and outrageous characters, both films use play as a vehicle for growth, making for two surprising examples of positive masculinity in the studio comedy landscape.
Released two weeks apart, both films are about a group of men, long out of their childhood years, maintaining ties and finding an innate sense of purpose through the rules and structures of a game. For Tag, it’s a group of 40-year-olds playing the same game of tag one month a year for 30-plus years; for Uncle Drew, an unstoppable team of b-ball octogenarians (played by NBA all-stars in deliberately cartoony old-age makeup) reassemble to dominate the Rucker Classic street-ball tournament in Harlem.
One’s based on a true story, the other on Pepsi commercials. Nonetheless, they both manage to discreetly offer a positive view of the games they play, and the benefits that sense of play instills in its characters.
In a lot of ways, Tag has the harder job of the two in imparting this message — after all, no one considers basketball a “child’s game,” unlike the slap-and-run antics involved in a grade-school game of tag. But it’s the absurdity of the game itself, and the willingness of so many grown men (and the women in their lives) to take it seriously, that lends the proceedings some weight. By the time the film begins, this group of friends (Ed Helms, Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson and Jeremy Renner) has been playing for 30 years; the premise involves the threat of Renner’s character retiring from the game after his impending wedding. As movies go, the stakes are small: If they don’t tag Renner, who’s never been tagged in the entire history of the game, he’ll quit. But on an emotional level, this yields greater consequences — if Renner quits, they’ll lose touch with him, and with each other as a result.
In this way, a silly, immature game of tag takes on new significance. It’s how a group of friends maintain a dynamic they’ve had since childhood, one which carries a great deal of meaning for them. Imagine if the kids from Stand by Me didn’t fade into the distance at the end, but kept walking down that street together, all the way into their golden years — that’s what the protagonists of Tag (proTagonists?) yearn to accomplish. If they must fly across the country, con their way into jobs, or wear disguises just to tag their unsuspecting friends, so be it. “This game has given us a reason to be in each other’s lives,” says Helms. That’s powerful stuff, even for a comedy featuring Jeremy Renner’s flailing CGI arms, or Brian Dennehy taking huge bong rips.
Uncle Drew is less explicitly about that, but its parallels are inescapable. Basketball isn’t a game at this point in popular culture, but an industry — the Rucker Classic, the tournament the film’s ragtag group of old folks seek to win, has transformed from the neighborhood ball game of their youth into a Pepsi-fied corporate event, complete with cheerleaders, NBA broadcasting, and a $100,000 cash prize. But for Drew’s crew, it means something more: the chance to reconnect with old friends in a Blues Brothers-style road trip, and revisit a game (and teammates) they’ve spent decades ignoring.
If Tag keeps a group of middle-aged doctors, executives, and professional slackers playfully chasing each other around apartments, golf courses, and hospital hallways, Uncle Drew takes the rejuvenating power of play to almost-magical levels. Drew and his crew, all AARP-eligible ball players with the cartooniest old man walks and shocks of grey hair you could imagine, suddenly turn into miraculously agile b-ball legends, crossover dribbling and alley-ooping with the best of them. For the boys of Tag and Uncle Drew, playing doesn’t just keep their friendships alive — it keeps them young.
Helpfully, Tag and Uncle Drew drag along some outside perspective characters to showcase the transformative power of play. In Tag, it’s Annabelle Wallis’ Wall Street Journal reporter (a gender-swapped version of the man who wrote the story about the real tag-team), who comes along for the ride to document the ways the game has strengthened their friendship. For Uncle Drew, it’s Lil Rel Howery’s down-on-his-luck coach Dax, a man who grew up idolizing Michael Jordan but quit playing because of one blocked shot in his youth. They’re the straight men (and women) for each film’s ensemble of wacky stars, the ones who don’t play so we can see the fun had by those who do.
And, of course, once they fall into the dynamics of the group, they’re similarly affected by the infectiousness of the game. Wallis’ character in Tag beams with delight at the end as she gets graciously tagged by the now-expanded group of players, while Drew encourages Dax to step in for the final quarter of the Big Game at the climax, thus redeeming himself. It’s not just a game at that point — it’s acceptance into a fraternity of warm, loving interpersonal relationships that promise to last a lifetime.
One thing that games encourage in men is a much-needed touch and play, a sense of friendly competition that paradoxically creates connections in all of us. Touch, even platonic touch, is an important component of our physical and social lives — it reduces stress, blood pressure and heart rate, and most importantly keeps us physically connected to others. Many modern men suffer from a phenomenon known as “touch isolation,” in which the stigma of homophobia and traditional norms of male emotional detachment have made it taboo for men to touch each other (without throwing out “no homo!” as a disclaimer).
While both Tag and Uncle Drew feature some wonderful female characters who get in on the fun, they’re boys’ films through and through. But let’s be honest: Men are the ones who need to learn the positive power of games the most. As norms around acceptable platonic touch for men change and grow, it’s important for media (even in the guise of bro-comedies like this) to show these unconventional avenues for male affection as acceptable, even positive.
You could argue that classic double acts like Martin and Lewis or Abbott and Costello have been showing these playful, affectionate relationships for decades. But for films like Tag and Uncle Drew to filter it through the process of play, turning these games into a quest to maintain fulfilling, lasting human connections, is a more than welcome sight for a comedy landscape that more often goes for raunch and cynicism. If movies like these can lure bros into the theater with the promise of dumb laughs, only to show them the positivity of play and how it can lead to strong, loving platonic relationships with each other, that’s the kind of growth G. Stanley Hall would likely appreciate.