Is a bad movie made better because it’s funny, or is a funny movie made worse because it’s bad? And if it’s occasionally hilarious but totally dead in the water otherwise, what are you left with? So it is with Tag, a totally disposable, predictable, unfunny rehashing of tired tropes and gags we’ve seen done better elsewhere—except when it’s exactly the opposite, an inspired and good-natured romp with imagination to spare.
If that was confusing to read, Tag is even more confusing to watch, a movie content with boring its audience to tears between the good parts. Even more baffling is the notion that any of this is supposed to feel fresh after Game Night, the best surprise of the year, even though Tag has the benefit of being based on a true story. The story goes that the same group of friends—Hoagie (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Chilli (Jake Johnson), Sable (Hannibal Buress) and reigning champion Jerry (Jeremy Renner)—have been playing tag since childhood. As adults, the entire month of May is fair game to tag another, complete with decades’ worth of amendments and rules. Along for the ride are Hoagie’s competitive wife, Anna (Isla Fisher), and Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis), a writer for the Wall Street Journal who began by writing a profile on Bob and ended up more intrigued by grown men who take a children’s game this seriously.
The leads all settle in to their natural charm with ease, and their chemistry breaks through the uneven way their characters are written. Director Jeff Tomsic swings for the fences with the mock action scenes, a great use of Renner’s action hero bona fides, but it’s usually the smaller moments that get the biggest laughs because that’s where the real unpredictability has room to take root. It’s fine to go for the easy laughs once in a while, but why does that have to mean back-to-back slo-mo chases that all end up in the same place? Why do we treat bong rips as a punchline? The result is a few very funny moments smothered by a tidal wave of unfunniness, like a comedian who can’t get to the joke because he’s too busy laughing.
Maybe it’s not totally fair to compare Tag to Game Night because it wasn’t made in contrast or response, but it’s worth examining why one works consistently and the other doesn’t. First, the audience for both is expecting a subversion of familiar movie tropes, so if all you’re doing is making a visual reference to that plot approach, you’re already a step behind. Game Night is a ride in itself, while Tag is a slideshow of someone else’s good time. Second, Game Night was entertaining between the huge moments, and everything that happened was motivated by the thing that came before. Tag, meanwhile, can’t tell the difference between an inspired idea and a lazy one, which frustratingly buries the good parts, like a perfectly cooked Kobe steak drowned in spoiled cottage cheese.
Tag is inoffensive—even, strangely, when its goal is to offend—so it’s not worth ripping apart, but its wasted potential makes it a bigger disappointment than if it had just been bad.
R, 100 minutes
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