Review: Tag (2018)


Tag is an absurd R-rated comedy with a serious dark streak that lifts it above some of its more conventional sitcom antics. Inspired by a Wall Street Journal article, the film details a game of tag that has been occurring every May between five male friends for the past 30 years. The film’s pleasures come from watching relatively-functional adults descend into childhood antics and obsessions in the quest to play a children’s game. If such a concept sounds entertaining, you’ll probably be happy with what Tag gives you.

The film stars Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, and Jeremy Renner as the five friends. Helms’ Hoagie wrangles Johnson’s Chilli, Buress’s Sable, and Hamm’s Callahan into teaming up to tag Renner’s Jerry, who is retiring from the game after his upcoming wedding and has avoided being "It" over the past 30 years. Most of the film consists of Helms, Johnson, Hamm, and Renner concocting elaborate plans to entrap Renner, which he always manages to upset in spectacular fashion.

In some respects Tag is an action film and these moments of the friends trying to tag Renner’s Jerry are the main action set-pieces. Director Jeff Tomsic even films them like major action set-pieces, taking major inspiration from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films by using speed-ramping, slow-motion, and voice-over to depict Jerry dismantling his friends much like Sherlock Holmes outsmarts and defeats his enemies in those films. We watch as the action on-screen shifts into slow-motion and Jerry starts to explain his friend’s methods of trying to tag him, recognizing all their weaknesses. He then explains his plan as he executes it, which usually involves him jumping through windows, flipping around like an acrobat, and using nearby objects as weapons to pummel his friends.

These are funny scenes and show Tomsic crafting jokes by utilizing the cinematic medium, similar to how another recent comedy, Game Night, relies as much on visuals for its gags as punchlines (although Game Night is the superior film). Other moments are less dependent on the visuals to carry the joke, but compensate for their visual flatness with an aggressive cynicism that’s reminiscent of The Hangover Trilogy. In one scene, the friends threaten to waterboard one of Jerry’s employees (a hilariously irritating Thomas Middleditch) to get him to tell them where he is. In another scene, a character’s wife fakes a miscarriage to get the upper hand in the game.

If these scenes sound too mean-spirited for you, that’s fair, but I appreciate the savage darkness here, especially as it underlines one of the film’s most astute observations: that adult men carry over and amplify the competitiveness of their childhoods. As well, scenes like these let the talented actors deliver some amazing punchlines, such as Jake Johnson’s horrified declaration that what they’re about to do is a “literal war crime.”

Of course, for all of Tag’s hilarious moments of dark comedy, there is a touching, even mushy, element to the film that undercuts its edge. The film approaches its characters much as a sitcom does, knowing that in their hearts, the characters just want to spend time with each other—which is essential to the appeal to the viewer, as viewers watch sitcoms because they essentially want to spend time with the characters. It speaks to the film’s strengths that it earns some of the camaraderie of a sitcom, making you believe the dynamics between the friends, especially between Jon Hamm and Jake Johnson, who make for a strangely-compelling odd couple. However, this mushiness also undercuts the more savage look at the characters’ weaknesses, and what it may say about adult men in American society.

That Tag doesn’t want to make larger comments about the types of characters it follows is fine, but it could have benefited from embracing the edge of The Hangover films and allowing a more cynical approach that lays bare the hilarious contradictions of its characters. In the end, Tag is no more than an entertaining comedy with a talented cast. It’s diverting, but like a childhood game, it’s also essentially meaningless.

6 out of 10

Tag (2018, USA)

Directed by Jeff Tomsic; written by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen, with a story by Mark Steilen based on a newspaper article by Russell Adams; starring Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Annabelle Wallis, Hannibal Buress, Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, Leslie Bibb, with Jon Hamm, and Jeremy Renner.