‘Tag’ Scores Laughs, Plays by The Rules

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Following the critical and commercial successes of “Game Night” and “Blockers” earlier this year, mainstream studio comedies have enjoyed a minor renaissance in American filmmaking. “Tag” continues this trend with a gleefully anarchic spin on the underappreciated art of physical comedy, even if it doesn’t contain the sterling wit or forward-thinking politics of its recent predecessors.

Self-proclaimed “Fortune 800” CEO Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm) interviews with The Washington Post reporter Rebecca Crosby (Annabelle Wallis), who begins drilling him with questions about his insurance practices. Little does he know that his childhood friend Hogan Malloy (Ed Helms) has snuck into his conference room, dressed as a janitor. Hogan jumps Bob, slapping him on the back and yelling “you’re it!” Rebecca is thoroughly bamboozled, and Bob and Hogan describe the epic, decades-long game that will encompass the next hour and a half. Since they were children, Bob, Hogan and their friends have played a month-long, cross-country game of tag during the month of May each year. Hogan convinces Bob to rally their crew when he mentions that Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner), who has never been tagged, is leaving the game after his upcoming marriage to Susan Rollins (Leslie Bibb). So with Rebecca and Hogan’s wife Anna (Isla Fisher) in tow, they recruit old pals Chili (Jake Johnson) and Sable (Hannibal Buress) in a last-ditch effort to tag Jerry before it’s too late.

Based on a true story that’s stranger than fiction, “Tag” is adapted from a Post article written by Russell Adams. The article, which is about 10 men who played the titular game into adulthood, is slimmed down into a robust 100 minutes of pure, unadulterated slapstick topped with a hearty dollop of soul.

Director Jeff Tomsic, known for his Comedy Central stand-up series “This Is Not Happening,” brings a welcome visual flair to the usual studio comedy fare. He directs with a sharp eye for staging physical comedy, a kind that’s often eschewed for improvisational verbality in modern American comedies, with refreshingly absurdist set pieces that are more than entertaining enough to carry the film (and, of course, there’s plenty of the usual man-on-man “ass slapping” to boot). He gives his excellent ensemble, which is among the best of the year, plenty of room to roam, but never lets them stray. Buress is the understated MVP of the bunch, with a sleepy, deadpan delivery that cuts through the childish blabbering of his teammates. Renner is in second place here, with his hyper-stylized fight sequences reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes.” Yet, each of the five central characters has a distinct personality of his own.

The keyword there is “his.” Sadly, the same praise can’t be given to the film’s treatment of its female characters. Rebecca is as underdeveloped as a character gets, largely left in the background as a one-woman, note-scribbling Greek chorus. The ever-talented Rashida Jones is largely wasted as Cheryl Deakins, who is only deployed as a distraction (read: sexualized plot device) for the attentions of Bob and Chili. As a whole, the women of the film don’t have much of a place in the ensemble — the filmmakers taking the game’s “boys only” rule to heart — with Anna being the only true individual among the bunch. Fisher is a standout among the cast — a fiery, fiercely competitive foil to the immature antics of her husband’s group of friends.

Still, there’s something deeply hilarious and distressingly accurate about boiling modern masculinity down to an exclusionary, never-ending children’s game. “Tag” manages to kickstart this kind of discourse, but fails to follow through on it. Since Mark Twain’s stories of rambunctious rascals, the man-child has been a hallmark of American literature, but it enjoyed a renaissance in the aughts through the comedies of directors such as Judd Apatow. While “Tag” doesn’t suffer from Apatow’s often overstuffed runtimes, it takes his exploration of this archetype into a more physical terrain, one that calls back to the ensemble comedies of the ‘70s and ‘80s. While Apatow’s man-children often languished in their lazy refusal to grow up, the men of “Tag” actively fight the maturation process and hold on to the liminal rituals of their childhood. In that sense, it’s a proper update of the man-child for the modern age, one in which toxic masculinity finds an outlet in the complacency of online anonymity. “Tag” is a celebration of games and friendship and the power that these physical and social exercises have in communicating and releasing bottled-up emotions. But Tomsic’s film doesn’t go quite as far as it should in exploring these concepts — it is a mainstream comedy, after all, reaching for the broadest appeal.

But in the end “Tag” is much more than some guys being dudes. The film is about the importance of play, and how we adapt it to the responsibilities of adult relationships. Even with all of its problems, it’s still a thoughtful, brisk and often knee-slapping good time at the movies — a heartfelt and original one that should justifiably tag the unstoppable onslaught of franchised summer fare to come.

Grade: B