I wonder at what point it occurred to the friends from Washington, who continued to play a game of ‘tag’ across three decades, that they were living the lives of a well-budgeted, Hollywood action-comedy? This true story wrote itself.
Over shots of a lost Linkaterean childhood, Ed Helms laments the human condition: ‘we grow old because we stop playing’. In Tag, however, the Hangover star plays a middle-aged man who never stopped planning. Along with Jerry (Jeremy Renner), Callahan (Jon Hamm), Chilli (Jake Johnson and Kevin (Hannibal Buress), Hogan ‘Hoagie’ Malloy have maintained from their school days the tradition of playing a game of tag – perhaps better known as ‘tig’ in the UK – once a year, throughout the month of May. Their lives may have dispersed but the threat of being ‘it’ remains.
Such a gleeful premise makes for a neat idea. One well realised in a rollicking opening sequence, in which Hoagie – a doctor with a successful practice to his name – gains employment as a janitor to tag Callahan at his place of work. Brilliantly, Tag is based on the genuine story of ten ingeniously immature friends who actually do this. End credit footage reveals which of the stunts were bonafide re-enactions. They also expose how little Helms and co resemble the real guys – perhaps for best, they’re not flattering characters.
Much more could have been achieved with Tag than Jeff Tomsic – in his directorial debut – and writers Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen ever set out to. Whilst there’s fun to be had in the boyish rigmarole of the game, concepts of masculinity are ripe for the taking but remain just out of reach. There is certainly something compelling about investigating the concept of men spending their lives paranoid, afraid of being touched by each other. Instead of approaching this, the film is content in generic and clichéd anti-gay territory. For all their ridiculously camp habits, these men are definitively heterosexual.
Similarly disappointing – and more problematic – is the film and its characters’ relationship with women. Whilst it could never be said that the males here are three dimensional, there is at least more to them than their paper-thin female counterparts. Annabelle Wallis plays the Wall Street journalist who ‘discovers’ the game but grows rapidly, justifiably, bored the more it becomes apparent how little she has to do. Rashida Jones is, likewise, criminally underused as a former love interest of two in the group. Worst treated is a marvellously on-form Isla Fisher, Hoagie’s über aggressive wife, Anna, who is über into the game but has always been barred from it due to a ‘no girls allowed’ rule. Referred to as ‘a kinky cat’, Anna sits at the heart of the film’s on and off screen sexism. Whereas it is acceptable for men in Tomsic’s world to be aggressive and childish, a woman must be passive a child-rearing. She actually whips out a photo of her children to show off her motherhood in one set-piece. That the ‘no girls’ rule was created by nine year olds is an excellent metaphor but is barely touched upon. Women in Tag are little more than a buzz kill for male freedom.
Being so fundamental a flaw with the film, this level of backward stereotyping is deeply frustrating. Sexism is not Tag’s only flaw – another is the concept’s inability to go anywhere – but it is the principle drawback, unsettling the fun. To capture Jerry’s skill, Tomsic tapes into Renner’s action back catalogue and absolutely nails it in sequences that Guy Ritchie would be proud of. Larry Blanford’s cinematography is superb. Full marks to a deadpan Buress too, whose excellent work is rewarded with the best line of the film. If Tag weren’t so puerile, it might have been a classic.