• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Non-Review Review: Tag

Tag is a charming comedy that largely coasts off star charisma and a surprisingly heartwarming premise.

The plot is a compelling hook of itself. Inspired by a true story, Tag is the tale of a bunch of male friends who take one month out of every year in order to participate in a game of tag. This game has been going, on and off, for the better part of three decades. As the players get older, the pranks get more elaborate – the ruses, the feints, the misdirections, the ambushes. However, throughout the movie, the characters repeatedly stress that the game has also kept them together and in one another’s lives.


This is a familiar set-up. It is the stuff of “overgrown manchildren” comedy, the tale of adult (and often even middle-aged) men who have the emotional maturity of children. Stepbrothers is perhaps the gold standard of the increasingly common comedy subgenre, which arguably includes films as diverse as Old School, Bad Neighbours and Knocked Up. Even indie comedies have gotten in on the act with movies like The Skeleton Twins, Cyrus or Adult Beginners.

While not strong enough or smart enough to rank with the best examples of the genre, Tag flirts with something resembling self-awareness. The movie is just cognisant enough of its underlying immaturity to keep the audience onside. Tag also benefits from a strange bittersweet quality, its joyous celebration of hypermasculine friendship gently flavoured with something resembling melancholy. It’s never entirely clear how much of that melancholy is intentional, but it permeates and enriches the film.

Renner, Renner.

It has been a relatively strong year for studio comedy, as demonstrated by the success of Game Night. More than that, there’s a creeping sense of maturity that is subtly infusing even the most juvenile of comedies. Blockers is a much more mature, considerate and sensitive movie than its basic premise would suggest, the production team cannily working through the mechanics and implications of the core premise without sacrificing the sort of broad comedy that the format demands.

Tag is not quite as good as either Game Night or Blockers, but it is engaging enough on its own terms. A lot of this comes from the use of the central male cast. None of these actors are cast against type, but this proves something of a shrewd decision. The audience is used to Jon Hamm playing a handsome and successful businessman without emotional awareness. The audience expect Ed Helms to be anxious and uncomfortable. The film can reliably cut to Hannibal Buress for a wry non sequitur. Jake Johnson is disarming as a wayward stoner.

Emotionally shuttered.

These are all broad archetypes that seem almost tailor-made to fit the screen personas of this cast. This might seem lazy or clumsy in other circumstances, but it allows Tag to more convincing replicate the sensation of friendship and familiarity. Even before the film properly begins, the audience feels like it knows these characters because it has seen these actors playing these types of roles before. As a result, Tag can slip comfortably into a group dynamic that the audience already feels like it understands.

This is no small accomplishment. Indeed, one of the movie’s better gags involves the casting of Jeremy Renner as the movie’s central antagonistic figure; Jerry, the friend who has never been tagged. Renner is more of an action star than a comedian, allowing for small cameos in films like The House. As such, the audience immediately buys Jerry as a dynamic and impossibly limber subject. Renner is a veteran of The Avengers, the Bourne series and the Mission: Impossible franchise. It makes sense that he can move in slow motion and turn donuts into weapons.

Ain’t playin’.

One of the stranger aspects of modern studio comedy is the gentle merger with self-help philosophy, with the medium become a vehicle for life-affirming messages about big idea like the importance of being oneself or the need to trust other people. Even Game Night is a story about masculine self-worth, while Blockers is an ode to parenting. It is strange that a genre founded on the idea of humour and subversion should be so tightly associated with self-affirmation.

Tag has more than its fair share of heartwarming messages for the audience to take on-board from this game of middle-aged dudes who have kept the same playground game running for decades. A recurring joke has the characters meditating on the idea that “we don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” More than one character didactically explains (to a supporting character and audience surrogate who is also a reporter) “the game has kept us in each other’s lives.”

Game on.

This sort of heavy-handed thematic exposition might grate in a movie that more earnestly aspired towards maturity, but it works rather well in the context of Tag. Perhaps it is due to the innocence of the schoolyard game at the heart of the premise, or perhaps it reflects the fact that a game like “tag” is anchored in the appeal of physical contact, or maybe it is even due to the fact that the film embraces the juvenile appeal of middle-aged men casting off the shackles and expectations of responsible adulthood. Whatever the precise reason, it works well enough.

Again, the film benefits from a light flirtation with self-awareness. There is a slight sense throughout the film that – as much fun as the game is – it is also just a little bit pathetic. The film acknowledges the eternal struggle facing comedies like this, the difficulty incorporating female characters. In older comedies, the wives and girlfriends were reduced to surrogate mothers, no-fun scolds who looked on from the sidelines with disdain. Modern comedies like Bad Neighbours and Game Night let them in on the act. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates even lets them lead.

Cornering the market on this game.

Of course, it’s hard to argue whether this is the right approach; it allows the female characters to have fun, but only so long as they play according to the rules set by the male leads. Rose Byrne is amazing in Bad Neighbours and Rachel McAdams is a delight in Game Night, but they feel like passengers rather than drivers. Then again, it is perhaps better to be along for the ride than to be left on the sidewalk. Tag is hardly innovative in how it folds its female characters into its narrative framework, but it has clearly put some thought in.

Isla Fisher plays a wife who accompanies her husband on the hunt. She cannot actually play, though. “The rules were made when they were nine,” she explains. “So no girls allowed.” Nevertheless, she as competitive as any of her male counterparts. When Jerry’s wedding conveniently falls at the end of the tag-month, his fiancée seems to wrestle with her role in the narrative. “I don’t want to be that woman,” she explains, trying to prevent her wedding from descending into chaos while still wearing a smile. “But I feel like that woman has a point.”

Marrying a player.

There is enough self-awareness to bring the movie along, to soften the potentially rough edges of the premise and to ensure that everybody involved can have a good time. Indeed, one of the more compelling internal tensions within the narrative is the idea of boundaries; what is part of the game, what is outside the game, and what level of exploitation of that liminal space is justifiable and reasonable. At one point, things take a disastrous turn, and the characters wonder if this is just an elaborate ruse. “Is this fake?” another character asks a real doctor, so lost is he in the game.

This hints at a strange melancholy that bubbles through the film as a whole. As much as Tag celebrates the game for bringing these men together and keeping them involved with one another as any hobby does, there are also a few suggestions that all is not entirely right. One of the gang is introduced having therapy for trust issues, discovering that his friends are secretly hiding in his therapist’s closet to get him. Similarly, the characters ruminate on whether they can every really trust one another or whether they have created boundaries to keep their opponents distant.

Leap of faith.

Tag never dwells on this melancholy. It is a broad studio comedy. However, it is there. It permeates the film. It is present in the smaller scenes and the larger set-ups, the committed punchlines that then invite the audience to think through the implications. Several of the characters in Tag are revealed to have been keeping secrets from one another. These secrets are not jokes of themselves, but actual burdens that these men are carrying. Tag never explicitly asks if the game is why these men have kept these secrets, but the characters do repeatedly converse about decorum.

This strange earnestness that runs through the centre of the film provides a surprisingly effective grounding for the more absurd elements. There are points at which Tag openly veers into absurdity, occasionally even subtly shifting genres along the way. At one point, the film mimics Predator. At another, it evokes Sicario. These tonal shifts might be jarring if the movie hadn’t so explicitly stated its throughline and flavoured it with just a dash of introspection.

Photo finish.

Tag does suffer a little bit from being over-conventional and formulaic in places. This is particularly apparent in the movie’s third act, which relies on a twist in order to escalate the premise and force a dramatic conclusion to the narrative and thematic arcs. In theory, Jerry’s wedding should provide enough escalation, but the film over-extends itself and falls back on a contrived and ridiculous soap opera cliché that exists to provide a button on the whole enterprise.

Similarly, while the male cast members benefit from the opportunity to play broad and familiar archetypes, the female performers are not so lucky. Isla Fisher gets to go big and broad, while Leslie Bibb gets some nice material in the third act. Unfortunately, Rashida Jones is somewhat wasted as a character who is literally introduced (and openly discussed) as a plot function affecting the two male leads, and never gets to develop the role. Annabelle Wallis is landed in the even more thankless role of the journalist chronicling the story, the observer and recorder.

Time out.

Tag is not innovative or brilliant. However, it is engaging and disarming. It requires a certain amount of buy-in from the audience, and collapses under the slightest amount of scrutiny or cynicism. It is self-aware enough that it works, but never as insightful or clever as the best of modern studio comedies. It is a movie that is enjoyable and charming, just so long at the audience is willing to play along.

4 Responses

  1. Great read!

  2. Awesome review!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: