If it elicited a weary sigh to hear that Hollywood was making a comedy about grown men playing tag, it was at least nominally reassuring to see trailers acknowledge the inanity of the idea. The studio marketing machine behind “Tag” was smart to try to preempt “Emoji Movie”-ish ridicule, tweaking familiar “true story” grandiosity with a quippy “We’re not kidding” parenthetical.
More encouraging still, the movie itself takes a moment to poke fun at its origins as a Wall Street Journal article. (Again, not kidding.) But what’s most unexpectedly gratifying is how much energy veteran standup director Jeff Tomsic and his splashy cast pour into ensuring that this is legit entertainment, packed with gonzo wit and even some sentiment.
It’s been 30 years since childhood pals Hoagie (Ed Helms), Callahan (Jon Hamm), Chilli (ensemble MVP Jake Johnson), and Sable (Hannibal Buress) kicked off their epic game of tag, a pastime that’s become their version of an annual reunion. Never mind that, say, Callahan’s career as an insurance CEO ought to make him unavailable, if not downright untouchable. Comically determined Hoagie simply lines up an unlikely cover gig with the company, pulling Callahan back in along with Annabelle Wallis’s inquiring WSJ reporter. (Consider it a shot of narrative estrogen to supplement the one that Isla Fisher supplies as Hoagie’s wife and gung-ho accomplice.)
It’s somewhat more straightforward, if just as amusing, when they grab Chilli from his stoner pad and Sable from a raunchily Freudian session at his shrink’s office. But the guy they all really want to be “it” is the gang’s slippery fifth member, Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who’s managed to avoid being tagged all these years. Good luck with that tony wedding of yours, Jer.
You know that this group is really on their taboo-comedy game when Guantanamo-style rendition is one of the more tasteful subjects they gleefully trample, and it all somehow works. But the freewheeling material also offers quite a bit more: nimbly presented themes about friendship and staying young at heart, and a goofily random shout-out list incorporating everything from ’90s alt-rockers Crash Test Dummies to Bill Belichick.
The physical bits are more than expected, too, a collection of bonkers action beats more inspired than we’re seeing in most of the season’s genre blockbusters. Renner’s smug evader even plots his escapes with slo-mo pre-visualizing straight out of contemporary Sherlock Holmes yarns. Coast on their silly gimmick? These “Tag” teamers don’t play that.
Directed by Jeff Tomsic. Written by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen. Starring Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, Isla Fisher, Annabelle Wallis. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 100 minutes. R (language throughout, crude sexual content, drug use, brief nudity).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.