‘Tag’ Stretches The Meaning Of ‘Inspired’ In ‘Inspired By A True Story’

Warner Bros

At its core, Tag is a movie in which a group of actors will make a slow-motion entrance set to a vintage rap song at some point. You know the scene. It’s in virtually every studio comedy movie these days, from Bad Moms to Neighbors. Tag never transcends the basic fact of being the kind of movie with a slow-motion rap walk scene, and even when it’s decently funny and reasonably entertaining (which it usually is!), it remains ever constrained by the basic shticky irreality of the format. Which isn’t to say that it’s bad, just that at some level you know what’s coming. And it’s hard to fully buy in to a story when you know what’s coming.

The rap, in this particular case, is “Colors,” Ice T’s 1988 title track for the movie of the same name, which really has no thematic relevance to Tag or any of the characters in it, but was a mildly surprising choice that made me smile a little bit. And that’s sort of Tag in a nutshell. It’s exactly what you’re expecting, elevated from “meh” to “sure why not.”

The film is based on a 2013 Wall Street Journal article (which takes about three minutes to read, which maybe should’ve been a red flag for anyone turning it into a 90-minute movie) about a group of guys who have spent the last 23 years playing a game of tag. The game runs one week a year (one month in the movie version) during which anything goes. The real-life cast of participants, which included the chief marketing officer of Nordstrom, a priest, a high school teacher, and a lawyer — among others, in its ranks — has been transmogrified here into family man Hoagie (Ed Helms, along with his wife, played by Isla Fisher), business exec Callahan (Jon Hamm), divorced stoner (there’s always a stoner) Chili (Jake Johnson), job-not-specified therapy patient Sable (Hannibal Burress), and their white whale, Jerry (Jeremy Renner), a physical trainer who’s so canny and elusive that in 23 years he’s never been tagged.

Another movie trope that you know you’ll have to accept going in is the cast looking like dudes who would never be friends in real life — in this case they aren’t even that close in age. But sure, I guess a little irreality is better than a cast of homogenous undifferentiates. And to its credit, Tag incorporates Hannibal Burress (who is 12 years younger than Jon Hamm) and his natural persona into the plot better than almost any other studio comedy he’s been in. His non-sequiturs actually work, now that he’s not shoehorned into a weird straight man role like in Neighbors. Sable isn’t exactly a fully realized character, but at least he’s funny.

The idea of adults playing tag is kind of stupid, but the movie gives it a solid elevator pitch, repeated early and often by Ed Helms’ character, a quote he misattributes to Benjamin Franklin: we don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing. “So we just never stopped playing,” Hoagie tells us in the opening voiceover.

Which means we buy into the tag part pretty quickly: it seems like a bit of a dopey high concept on the surface, but once Helms explains it, it’s actually sweet that adult friends have figured out a way to keep seeing each other every year, when it’s so easy not to. They take great pains to stay “in touch,” and there is something to this idea. Woody Allen famously said that 80 percent of life is just showing up, and that’s extra true of friendship.

But while the movie, directed by Jeff Tomsic, does a great job selling the Wall Street Journal article on which it’s based, it never quite justifies this movie version. The actors are capable enough, and Tomsic uses speed ramping effects in Renner’s scenes, shooting them like a Terminator action sequence and keeping things lively. Isla Fisher plays a winning variation on her volatile pixie character from Wedding Crashers, and even if it’s a little self-plagiarizing she’s really good at that kind of character. Yet through it all, the most memorable part of the movie isn’t anything the actors or the director do, it’s the home video footage of the real guys jumping out of bushes and car trunks or sneaking up on each other disguised as old women that plays during the credits.

Everything Tag the movie adds to the narrative is a transparent contrivance. It describes itself as “inspired by a true story,” but the only thing the true story seems to have inspired is the desire to make it look more like movies. It never gets to the root of what makes this a story worth telling, it’s always just an excuse for hijinks. Hijinks are fine, but at a certain point they start to feel needy. Are you guys having fun? Isn’t this fun? Everyone’s still having fun, right?? What if Jon Hamm fell down again??

Meanwhile, there are real questions left unanswered. These guys playing tag starts off as a sweet excuse to stay in touch, but it’s also a competition. And what has that competition wrought? In a flashback we see Ed Helms’ Hoagie get “tagged” at his father’s funeral, and he takes it in stride. Meanwhile, the main conflict is Jerry’s fianceé (Leslie Bibb) threatening to turn bridezilla if they “ruin” her wedding.

Why is the wedding more off-limits than the funeral? Unless… she’s just faking it to help her future husband win. And if so, what does it do to friendships if you can never tell when people’s feelings are hurt or if they’re just trolling you?

The film doesn’t have much to say about any of these things and it ends more or less where it began: adult tag is a sweet game played among friends to stay in touch. The story has no real complication, just a setup, a series of bits, and an ending (an especially manipulative, contrived ending, which I won’t spoil). They’re fine bits. Good enough to charm you if you see them, but not memorable enough to make you feel like you’re missing out if you don’t.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.