A Hollywood comedy about grown men still acting like little boys isn’t exactly the most novel or progressive concept. But it’s been a while since that wheezy old trope has been executed as perfectly as it is in Tag — my frontrunner for the funniest movie of the year so far.
Based on a true story (as hard as it might be to believe), this hilarious and heartwarming tale revolves around a group of childhood best friends who refuse to let the responsibilities and disappointments of adulthood kill off their inner 9-year-olds. Every year, for one month, these five middle-aged merry pranksters (Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, and Hannibal Buress) play tag — that classic “You’re it!” playground pastime whose rules couldn’t be more simple. Of course, they’ve added their own arcane bylaws and codicils to the game over the years, including tagging players at the most inopportune times in the most unexpected places, such as the hospital delivery room during the births of their children and the funerals of their parents. It’s a cross-country full-contact blood sport. To them, tag has become more than just a stupid game. It’s a lifeline to a more innocent, carefree time.
When we first meet them, the game has been going on for 30 years. And in all that time, Renner’s Jerry has never been “it,” eluding his pals like a cross between James Bond, Neo from The Matrix, and the Flash. But his ninja-like invincibility has also kept him at a bit of a remove from the others. And now, he’s got two big announcements: First, he’s getting married. And second, he wants to retire from the game and go out on top. Not so fast. What could be a more target-rich environment to finally tag Jerry than Jerry’s wedding?
Helms, playing the same sort of lovable doofus he portrayed in the Hangover movies, takes the game most seriously. And his wife (a fizzy, manic Isla Fisher) is just as into it. She’s like his overly enthusiastic wingman. Hamm, a corporate wheeler-dealer who’s being interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, drops everything to join the mission, bringing the reporter (Annabelle Wallis) with him to chronicle what she knows is an unbelievable story (the real-life game was revealed in the paper in 2013). New Girl’s Johnson is the resident slacker-stoner man-child, but he’s especially charming in his cluelessness. And Buress spices up even the most absurd situations with his impeccably dry, deadpan delivery. These characters and these actors couldn’t be less alike, but their chemistry together is perfection.
It’s easy to imagine the thousand ways that a movie like Tag could’ve curdled and gone sour. Or worse, felt toxically dude-ish. But director Jeff Tomsic (TV’s The Detour) and writers Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen never make the film feel like a boys’ club in the way that The League or the Grown Ups movies could sometimes be. These guys are pathetic, to be sure. But also totally winning. The early-’90s music cues (A Tribe Called Quest, the Beastie Boys, the Pixies) add an infectious extra layer of nostalgia.
When asked by everyone they meet why they do this — why they keep playing this kids’ game after all these years — the guys keep repeating, “We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing.” You get the sense they’ve said this mantra of an excuse so many times that they know how corny and hollow it sounds. But the magic of Tag is that it winds up being absolutely true. It’s a ridiculously raunchy and very, very sweet comedy about staying connected to the most important people in your life. The people who know everything about you and what makes you tick — even the things you’d rather they didn’t. It’s about being vulnerable and accepted unconditionally. This silly game about getting away from one another, deep down, is about staying close and getting closer. A