It is all too common to fall out of touch with friends as you get older. Some of them move away, while others get married and have kids. Even if you have few obligations and live in the same city, it is easy to drift apart from friends as your priorities change. Most efforts to slow this atrophy involve regular reunions, or an excuse to keep in touch, like fantasy football. Tag, the new comedy from first-time director Jeff Tomsic, imagines an extreme case of resolving this anxiety. Not only is the film hilarious, but it’s also the rare goofy comedy for adults that avoids saccharine moments and gross-out gags.
Based on a 2013 article from The Wall Street Journal, screenwriters Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen imagine a group of childhood friends who use an ongoing game of tag to stay in touch. During the month of May, Hogan (Ed Helms) and his four friends find creative, dastardly ways to tag one another as “it.” On the game’s 30th anniversary, Hogan dreams of catching Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who is so cunning and fast that he has never been tagged. Jerry is getting married in May, so Hogan figures the festivities mean he has to let his guard down at some point. This leads to escalating comic setpieces, with Jerry always one step ahead of Hogan, Bob (Jon Hamm), Chilli (Jake Johnson), and Sable (Hannibal Buress).
Part of the reason this material is so funny is that all five friends treat the game deadly serious. As Hogan recruits his competitors to take down Jerry, no one ever says, “I’m an adult, and this is a game for children.” They see tag as an opportunity for glory, and if one person quits, then the childlike joy is permanently lost. Tomsic is a solid director of action, and the film’s frequent foot chases have a gleeful sense of comic anarchy.
There is a moment where Hogan chases Chilli through the streets of Denver, and to any bystander, the urgency might look like a police officer chasing down a perp (the scene is inspired by the foot chase in Point Break). Still, the funniest physical gags involve Renner’s comic nonchalance as a brilliant tag strategist. We hear voice over of his strategy, and Jerry anticipates every move like Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie’s reimagining of the character.
Like most winning comedies, Tag finds unique, plausibly human quirks for its major characters, and puts them in situations where they cannot help but act on them. Isla Fisher nearly steals the show as Anna, Hogan’s wife. Even though she is not in the game, her sense of competition is more deranged than that of her husband or his friends. There is a scene where Anna leads an interrogation of someone who knows Jerry’s whereabouts, and her intensity rivals what you might find at a CIA black site.
Some stories seem bound for obvious payoffs and somehow avoid them anyway. There is a subplot where Chilli and Bob are romantic rivals, vying for their childhood sweetheart Cheryl (Rashida Jones). This leads to bickering and deception, as it must, and while the stakes are high, the screenplay preserves the friendship between the two men. So many comedies shift toward “serious mode” when they need an ending. Tag includes dramatic surprises, but never loses its comic edge, thanks to the simple premise that all these characters know they’re being silly and cannot help themselves.
The mechanics of tag, with one person being “it,” assists the screenplay so that each of the five principals have a moment in the spotlight. Along with Fisher, Buress has the funniest lines simply because of his delivery—distant, deadpan, and surreal—and his perfect timing. Johnson continues his “slacker with a heart of gold” persona that he honed on New Girl, while Helms is a dependable everyman. One of the most pleasant surprises, oddly, is from Hamm. Sure, he has had comic roles in Bridesmaids and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but Tag showcases his gifts as a physical comedian. There is something inherently goofy about a grown man—especially with Hamm’s solid build—running like a maniac without athletic clothing. Hamm leans into the innate silliness of the imagery, with his face contorted to suggest joy and mania.
To its credit, Tag does not really delve into the personal or professional lives of its characters. The conceit of the game, with the month of May giving the players free reign, means there is a sheen of nostalgia and gleeful abandon to the action. That kind of freedom is already infectious—who wouldn’t want an annual excuse to goof off without responsibility among your oldest friends?—and the chemistry among the leads practically ensures you’ll be thinking about your buddies before the film is over.
So many films are about what it means to get older, and owning up to responsibilities. Tag is about that, too, with the added wisdom that middle age does not mean youth should be forgotten.
Tag opens Friday in theaters everywhere.