There’s not much to “Tag” that you won’t get out of most big-budget comedies. The cast is almost unanimously made up of names you’ll recognize from their previous work, and you’ll leave the theater feeling like at least one of your favorites was shafted for screen time.
At least a full quarter of the jokes will feel like a bad improvisation that goes on way too long and mostly consists of two or more characters trying to talk nonsense over each other. There will be a Big Emotional Moment that comes out of nowhere about ten minutes from the end of the movie, when the writers realized they couldn’t just have the characters play tag the whole time and expect anyone to actually see it.
“Tag” ticks all these boxes and more, but when it dabbles in cliché, it does so with such gusto and such commitment to the insanity of its premise — a group of school friends, now in their thirties, who have been keeping the same game of tag going for decades — that it’s really hard not to like.
Unlike similar comedies like “Daddy’s Home 2” or “The House,” there’s an understanding here that just putting funny people on camera together doesn’t naturally generate comedy. The cast of “Tag” is actually given ample opportunity to show off their well-established comic chops — Jake Johnson (TV’s “New Girl”) as a stoner, Jon Hamm (“Beirut”) as an uber-charismatic doofus, Ed Helms (“Father Figures”) as the biggest man-child in a group of man-children — and almost everyone gets a laugh.
The stand-out doesn’t even wind up being one of the leads; it’s Isla Fisher (“Nocturnal Animals”) as Anna, the wife of Hoagie (Helms) who harbors an unhealthy obsession with the game. Fisher’s talents have been unused for too long, and her ability to shift between different personas at a moment’s notice, each one as funny as the last, is put to good use here. In one scene she’s shocked that she forgot to show off vacation photos of her kids to a visiting reporter. Soon after, she tries to waterboard Thomas Middleditch (TV’s “Silicon Valley”) so her husband can tag Jeremy Renner (“Wind River”). It’s ridiculous and absolutely hilarious.
Other members of the cast don’t acquit themselves as well, usually due to a lack of screen time as opposed to any fault of their own. Rashida Jones (TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) has proven herself a terrific straight man in the past but isn’t given the chance to do anything in “Tag” but participate in a tired love triangle with Johnson and Hamm (and even as a fan of Johnson’s work, the correct answer is clearly Jon Hamm, right?). And Annabelle Wallis (“The Mummy”) is mostly an audience surrogate who sticks to the background, though it would have been nice to see her get in on the action a bit more.
Then there’s Renner as Jerry: the crux on which the whole movie turns and who ultimately feels like he’s in a different movie. Since most of the movie consists of him running away from the rest of the cast, he’s the odd man out, the one who never really feels like “part of the group.” This is almost certainly part of the point, that Jerry has grown farther from his friends mentally as he has physically in the game, but where we understand the relationships between the other characters due to their shared screen time, we never get the same insight into Renner, so the Big Emotional Moment that ensues with his character late in the movie falls comparatively flat.
The upside to this is that at no point does “Tag” treat Renner’s character like he is bound by the laws of physics and logic, which allows for overblown action more like something you’d expect out of “First Blood” or “Sherlock Holmes” than a movie based on a children’s game. It’s drenched in slow motion and accompanied by Renner’s smirking voice over, a god playing amongst mere mortals. In a time when most comedies don’t allow themselves to lean into their ludicrous premise, watching “Tag” step up and own its insanity is pretty refreshing.