“Tag” shouldn’t have worked. It revolves around a simple premise taken from real life, but it’s exaggerated and artificially extended to cinematic proportions. It has one message that’s narrated at the beginning and repeated every twenty minutes. It’s a straightforward dose of humor, alternating uniformly between situational comedy and self-contained non-sequiturs. It throws together a band of comedic personalities, collects a multi-million-dollar budget, and passes go.
That could describe a number of terrible comedies, but “Tag” succeeds—and it’s one of the funniest movies of the year. What sets it apart from the compendium of calamitous R-rated comedies that’s vomited into theaters every year?
The film’s most impressive feat—though admittedly, it’s only impressive in relation to the genre—is tonal balance. “Tag” tells the true story of a group of friends who have been playing tag during the month of May for decades, in a competitive and endearing attempt to stay in each other’s lives. One could accuse the screenplay of utilizing too obvious a metaphor (they play tag to stay in touch!), but given that this was based on a real game of tag with a real group of friends, the criticism would be misplaced.
On one side of the tonal scale is the movie’s vulgar audacity. “Tag” tends to come extremely close to crossing ethical lines, only to pull back at the last second. It’s full of gleefully offensive set pieces that know exactly how to stop on a dime and self-efface, calling itself out with lighthearted self-awareness before the jokes get too unconscionable. But rest assured, its willful use of controversial topics isn’t too restrained: get ready to laugh with a dropped jaw as “Tag” riffs on everything from torture to miscarriages. It should come with a rightful trigger warning.
Despite that deliberate distastefulness, the other side of the tonal scale is earnestness. At its heart, “Tag” is a sweet story of friends that don’t want to lose each other. It never takes the non-committal stance of mocking its own sentimentality to maintain comedy cred: from start to finish, “Tag” is a heartwarming ode to the family of the 21st century. It’s nothing novel and it doesn’t say anything thought provoking, but it’s particularly thoughtful.
Of course, the dream cast is essential to the movie’s quality. Ed Helms, Isla Fisher, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, and Jeremy Renner comprise the main players. Their comedic talents magnify each other to hilarious high heaven. Isla Fisher and Hannibal Buress are the standouts here, the former exploding with violent verve and the latter thriving on his signature deadpan.
“Tag” doesn’t have a consistent visual language like the year’s best comedy “Game Night”, but it acts as a sort of visual chameleon, imitating other genres to spice up vignettes of tag insanity. It’s not all fun and games, though: a reporter for the Wall Street Journal follows the group wherever they go and she sticks out like a sore thumb. During the first two acts, she mostly exists to give characters a reason to explain the rules of the game. Rashida Jones’ character is the goal of a side competition between two men and the sheer male fantasy of it is gross.
These flaws, while certainly problematic, are not central enough to the movie to sink an otherwise funny experience. “Tag” is a testament to how a simple premise and a great cast can carry a comedy far.
★★★★ (4 out of 5)