“Tag” – now available for home viewing – isn’t too bad for what it is. The problem is that we know exactly what it is from the get-go: A group of friends carry their game of tag into adulthood. The theme is mentioned several times in the dialog: People don’t stop playing games because they grow old, they grow old because they stop playing games. Although it’s not common for adults to play tag, neither the characters nor viewers need convincing that it is a harmless way for these friends to stay in touch with each other, and with their youth.
This is based on a true story chronicled by the Wall Street Journal’s Russell Adams (who becomes Annabelle Wallis’ Rebecca in the movie), and granted, it would be harmful if the real-life taggers behaved like the characters in this fictionalized adaptation. “Tag” sometimes uses that form of comedy where the characters endure extreme physical trauma but then get up and brush themselves off. But there’s little doubt the details are exaggerated or flat-out made up, especially when we see clips of the blandly normal real-life dudes in the closing credits.
Director Jeff Tomsic and writers Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen add nice touches to this epic game. My favorite is when we see the POV of the untaggable Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who narrates his moves and decision-making like an action hero as he dodges his friends. Renner has the odd distinction now of playing the world’s best archer and world’s best tag competitor.
At times “Tag,” like its players, skirts the line between ridiculous fun and going too far, like when Hogan (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Chilli (Jake Johnson) and Sable (Hannibal Buress) threaten to waterboard someone who might know where Jerry is. It never quite goes too far, but it also fails to deliver a really great set piece; it remains in smile-worthy rather than laugh-out-loud territory. Elements like Hogan’s over-competitive wife, Anna (Isla Fisher), and Jerry’s irked bride, Susan (Leslie Bibb), are worth a chuckle here and there, but such jokes also wear thin.
The writers try to spice things up with side plots like Bob’s and Chilli’s longtime rivalry for the affections of Cheryl (Rashida Jones), Hogan’s mom having a thing for Chilli, or the most tired gag in Hollywood: the guy who wants to be part of the group but is left out. Here, we’re supposed to laugh at how the group excludes bartender Lou (Steve Berg). It works in “Game Night” because that film develops its lonely left-out guy, but “Tag” ultimately gets bored with its side curiosities.
It helps that “Tag” isn’t mean-spirited, and that the five men do come across as friends and generally decent people. It’s not ideal that their personalities are Hollywood-broad, with Hogan being the Everyman, Bob being rich and successful, Chilli being a pothead, Sable being overly philosophical and Jerry being as much of a superhero as Hawkeye.
“Tag” is rarely unpleasant to watch, and doesn’t descend to boring, but nor does it rise above a middling trifle. There’s no sense that it wants to rise above a trifle. Whether the topic was worthy enough for a WSJ article is debatable, but it’s clear there’s not enough here for a robust movie – at least when formatted as a mainstream comedy rather than an honest portrayal of the real-life tag-players.
So if you’re looking for the second great comedy of the year after “Game Night,” “Tag” isn’t quite “it.”