“Based on a true story” is hardly an unfamiliar tag for a movie, but usually it’s restricted to the dramatic types that the Academy Awards enjoy orgasming over every year. Comedy however, is very rarely afforded that true story tag. After all, real-life is rarely a laugh-a-minute experience. And those true comedy stories that do get made are generally filmmakers taking a serious situation and just putting a comedic spin on it, much like Michael Bay did with 2013’s Pain and Gain.
But every so often there’s a true story that’s so weird and baffling that you can’t help from chuckling. And the tale of a bunch of childhood friends that have been playing a real-life game of tag for nearly 30 years is definitely one of them.
Based on a Wall Street Journal article titled It Takes Caution, Planning To Avoid Being ‘It’; Tag follows a group of five 40-somethings who gather together every May to play a game of tag.
But this year is different. Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner), being the undisputed champion of the game as he has never been tagged, has decided to make this year his last due to his upcoming nuptials with fiancée Susan Rollins (Leslie Bibb).
This is unacceptable to Hogan “Hoagie” Malloy (Ed Helms) who, along with his wife, Anna (Isla Fisher), is determined to make this year the one where Jerry gets tagged. Accompanied by Wall Street Journal writer, Rebecca Crosby (Annabelle Wallis), they gather together their fellow players: Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), Randy “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson) and Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress). Together the group plan to make this year’s game of tag the ultimate experience of the past 30 years.
One aspect that many comedies forget to include is the need to emphasise with the characters. Relying on great jokes or creating an absurd situation isn’t enough. There needs to be empathy for the journey these characters are going on. Tag manages to boil this down to one beautiful phrase said by Helms’ character early in the movie: “You don’t stop playing because you get old. You get old because you stop playing.”
While it’s hardly Shakespeare, that line really says a lot about, not just the characters within the movie, but our own lives as well. How many friends did we spend every single day with thinking that we would know them forever? Now how many of them are we still in contact with? It’s that heartfelt approach that takes what should be the most dipshit and childish idea for a film, and gives it a humanity that helps support it through its, admittedly stretched out, 90 minute runtime.
Additional support is given by the delightful camaraderie between the main cast. Sure, Ed Helms isn’t playing anything different to his Hangover guise, and Johnson might as well be his New Girl character with added drug addition. But the standouts of Renner (who seems to have more superpowers here than as Hawkeye!) and Fisher with her relentless desire to win, help keep things ticking along.
Indeed, I have to applaud the movie for not making the female characters antagonists. It would have been far too easy for the womanfolk in this movie to look down up such childish games. Yes, the actual game of tag might be boys only here, but it’s a credit to screenwriters Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen that they were willing to show the women getting their hands dirty.
But despite the excellent cast putting themselves through an abundance of daunting physical comedy; it’s impossible to overcome the banality of such a simplistic plot. Director Jeff Tomsic (in his feature debut) does his best, putting together some entertaining slow-motion scenes in the vein of Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes films (with some scenes reaching the level of a Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner short!). But he can’t change the fact that this is essentially an hour and a half of watching five guys chase each other. Hardly the most complex of plot manoeuvres.
Tag has plenty of heart and a wealth of style, but still manages to overstay its welcome. Despite the best efforts of all the people involved, it’s clear that a big screen Hollywood approach might not have been the best idea. In fact, based on the footage of the real-life tag players that accompany the end credits, you can’t help thinking that maybe a Man On Wire-style documentary would have been a better choice.