Is it safe to declare that the high-concept comedy has finally returned to prominence? Led by Warner Bros., we’ve had several funny and broad films hit cinemas this year, each with their own easily-summed up hook, coming after a lengthy and painfully shitty Apatow-influenced drought, and honestly, I couldn’t be happier. There’s something deeply appealing about a quick and succinct premise — easy to pick up and interesting to develop — and it’s nice that we’re getting it back after years of nebulous navel-gazing and improv-heavy bullshittery that’s good for a cheap and quick laugh but free of innovation and completely devoid of any style whatsoever (of course there’s plenty of exceptions to this rule, but overall the shit floats). Enter Tag, a movie with an aggressively silly yet simple premise, based on a true story.
Five friends — Hoagie (Ed Helms), Sable (Hannibal Buress), Bob (Jon Hamm), Chilli (Jake Johnson), and Jerry (Jeremy Renner) — have been playing a game of tag in the month of May over the course of 30-something years, having started when they were wild-and-crazy kids out in the streets of their Spokane neighborhood, and this movie documents one particularly pivotal May for the group. You see, Jerry is thinking of retiring after the season, and in the whole time they’ve been playing this game, he’s never been tagged once. Seriously. He wants to preserve his record, and the other guys, especially Hoagie, have their asses chapped about the whole ordeal.
Along the way, they tout the virtues of play, as it keeps one from “growing old,” even though they bear all the hallmarks of aged dudes: Jobs, divorces, property, threatening to waterboard a dude with a ponytail for not giving up info as to where Jerry is. You know, the usual. They find the perfect spot to get him at — his wedding, which the guys haven’t been invited to — and make plans to finally get him before June rolls around and he retires unbeaten, like a significantly less shitty Floyd Mayweather.
However, this may prove to be an impossible task, given that Jerry is basically the Robert Downey Jr. version of Sherlock Holmes, being able to anticipate any number of moves by his friends in either speed-ramping action sequences where he avoids being tagged in an often ridiculous fashion or in elaborate pranks designed to fuck with his pals’ minds and keep them off of his tail. A gag involving Hoagie’s childhood bedroom is probably the single best of these pranks (it’s the most cerebral while also being the most risqué of the bunch), but all are funny, even if they branch out into outright slapstick. Director Jeff Tomsic, best known for filming a whole bunch of stand-up specials, shows off some real chops here that you probably wouldn’t be able to anticipate given his prior output.
There’s different points of action movie comparison between these sequences — the aforementioned Guy Ritchie Holmes, Predator, Zack Snyder’s filmography — and it’s more of a send-up of a style than a specific parody. It’s equivalent, and occasionally better, than the sequences that people raved about in Game Night earlier this year, but endowed with a more solid understanding of action filmmaking language than that movie possessed.
Even with that quality present, Tag would be totally forgettable if the cast didn’t gel together, and I’m glad to say that they do quite well. Each contains a necessary ingredient to the film’s success — Renner’s glum action-hero narration, Hamm’s sly wit and dry delivery (thank god he isn’t just doing his Bridesmaids schtick again), Helms’ crazy white-boy intensity, Johnson’s laconic good vies, and, most essential of all, Buress’ ability to step back from the action and just succinctly sum shit up in an endearingly blunt way (after one of Renner’s more extreme bits, he drops “our friend is a psychopath and I’m scared now,” and this killed in my theater). They feel like friends for most of the runtime, and even when they don’t, it has the same quality that so many films have tried to replicated from the Ocean’s formula: These are just personalities that you generally want to spend time with, and the movie knows that. A tread into serious territory near the finale of the film tests this ensemble to the breaking point, and it doesn’t succeed as well as it should thanks to that slight disconnect, but it’s still somewhat touching.
The film, you might guess, fails its female characters in a number of ways: Isla Fisher, playing Helms’ wife, feels ripped straight from Wedding Crashers, and the Wall Street Journal reporter following the gang, portrayed by English actress Annabelle Wallis, barely even makes an impression. Somehow the film even manages to misuse Rashida Jones, who shows up briefly as love interest for both Johnson and Hamm, and she never makes much of an impression. Tag finally makes a cursory nod to how the game seen throughout its course seems to be exclusively a male pastime near its absolute end, though it’s a bit too much too late. Still, it’s a very funny film, one that seemed to have the deck stacked against it in terms of its narrative potential, and I’d honestly love to see this cast work together again. Still, it’s a near-Herculean task to make a funny comedy sequel on a good day, so I’ll just take what I can get.